In a performance reminiscent of that which delivered him his breakthrough Formula 1 victory in Montreal last year, Lewis Hamilton got his 2008 title bid off to the perfect start by triumphing in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne - never putting a foot wrong as the heat and lack of traction control sent some of his rivals spinning into overdrive.

In so doing, not only did the Briton open up a handy ten point advantage over the non-scoring Kimi Raikkonen - the man most expect to be his principal challenger this season - he also gave McLaren-Mercedes its first win Down Under since David Coulthard prevailed five years ago, bringing the Woking-based outfit's success tally in Oz level with that of chief rival Ferrari.

The start was every bit as chaotic as many had predicted in the absence of launch control on the cars for the first time since the 2000 season, but pole-sitter Hamilton just made it stick by holding off a fast-starting Robert Kubica into turn one, as behind them Heikki Kovalainen and Felipe Massa duelled it out for third place.

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That battle ended up in Massa rather unceremoniously spinning off all on his own - necessitating a slow trip back to the pit-lane for the Brazilian for a new nose cone - but further behind still all sorts of fun and games were going on, with the ensuing m?l?e leaving Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella and Anthony Davidson all out of the race before the opening lap had even been completed. Vettel and Button came together, Davidson made contact with Williams' Kazuki Nakajima and Fisichella was left bemoaning 'kamikaze' moves on the part of some of his competitors.

With the safety car out, the situation was able to be briefly assessed with Fisichella beached in the turn one gravel trap, Davidson stopped elsewhere on-track and Button, Vettel and Webber all touring back to the pit-lane - the latter cementing his mantle as the unluckiest driver in Formula 1 as he failed to complete so much as a racing lap in front of his adoring home fans.

Back on the track, meanwhile, Hamilton held the advantage from Kubica, Kovalainen, a fast-starting Nico Rosberg up three spots from his grid position in fourth, BMW-Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, Toyota ace Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello in the surprising Honda RA108 and Raikkonen, whose stunningly aggressive tactics all the way around the outside of turn one had gained him a staggering seven places already.

When the safety car disappeared at the end of lap two, Hamilton was again forced to hold off a decidedly racy-looking Kubica with - further down the order - the incredible sight of Super Aguri's Takuma Sato hounding former double world champion Fernando Alonso for a spot in the top ten.

As Hamilton began to stretch his legs out front, Kubica settled into a comfortable second spot just out of reach of Kovalainen - biding his time in third, although five seconds in arrears of his imperious team-mate after as many laps - with Rosberg and Heidfeld duelling over fourth, Trulli a lonely sixth and Raikkonen pushing Barrichello for all he was worth in an effort to move up to seventh, albeit already a gaping 10.7 seconds behind the race leader.

With Hamilton continuing to pull away in a class of his own up front - at times lapping up to a second quicker than anyone else out on the circuit - Kovalainen began to close the gap on Kubica, who became the first of the front-runners to blink as he entered the pits at the end of lap 16. The timing would not work out for the Pole, however, as he rejoined right behind Barrichello and Raikkonen, the experienced Brazilian still using all his guile and expertise to keep the far quicker Ferrari behind him.

Hamilton was the next to make a stop at the end of lap 17 - two laps earlier than had been expected - promoting Kovalainen into the lead on his McLaren debut. When the Finn made his own stop four laps later, he would rejoin just ahead of Raikkonen, who having finally found a way past Barrichello was now fairly flying, immediately setting the quickest first sector time of the race.

The next incident came as Trulli dropped out of a strong sixth place with technical issues, whilst Heidfeld narrowly jumped Rosberg for fourth as the pair pitted together, with the squabbling duo emerging surrounded by Coulthard and Alonso, the Spaniard cannily seizing the chance to dive past the frustrated Rosberg around the outside of turn three.

Adrian Sutil was the next to run into problems, touring into his pit garage as the retirement count mounted, with rookies Nelsinho Piquet and S?bastien Bourdais bringing up the rear of the 15 drivers still running.

Back at the head of the field, meanwhile, by lap 24 Hamilton had the entire pit straight as his lead, but the next drama was just around the corner, as the embattled Massa aimed his car down the inside of Coulthard into turn three. As the Scot turned in, the committed Ferrari smashed right into the side of the Red Bull Racing machine, tearing chunks out of the RB4 whose angry driver was forced to pull off onto the grass, his hopes of a points-scoring finish torpedoed in the space of a moment.

That brought out the safety car once more to clear up the damage and debris scattered across the circuit from the collision, with Kubica, Timo Glock, Nakajima and Alonso - the latter perilously close to running out of fuel as the drivers waited for the pit-lane to open - all taking the opportunity to pit.

Interestingly, however, one driver who did not was the increasingly menacing Raikkonen, who had benefited greatly from the two safety car periods and was now up into third place - right in the McLarens' rear view mirrors. Against all odds, all three drivers were now effectively on the same strategy and separated by just a hair's breadth on the track.

Indeed, as Hamilton scampered away once more as the safety car returned to the pits, Raikkonen was all over the back of compatriot Kovalainen, and after an attack into turn one was swiftly rebuffed he tried again down the inside into turn three. Though this time the Ferrari did indeed succeed in darting past the McLaren, it darted past rather too quickly for the liking of its brakes, with Raikkonen skating straight on into the gravel trap and coming perilously close to clouting the barriers.

Whilst he was able to rejoin the fray - albeit now somewhat war-wounded - team-mate Massa wasn't so fortunate, pulling off and into retirement at the side of the track, ironically at turn three, scene of his earlier indiscretion with Coulthard. To fill the Scuderia's cup of woe to overflowing, when Raikkonen rejoined from his enforced pit-stop, he lay a full 22 seconds behind anyone else, and with it all to do over again.

Piquet became the next victim as his Renault rolled to a halt out on-track - leaving just eleven cars still in the mix with 26 laps remaining - but there was better news for the French outfit as Alonso piled the pressure on Kubica up in seventh position, the Pole having dropped a staggering four seconds off the pace with tyre graining woes.

One man having an extremely good day was STR debutant Bourdais - up into an incredible sixth place as Sato became the race's latest retiree - but at the front Hamilton was powering away again, more than five seconds ahead of Kovalainen, with new third-placed man Heidfeld keeping the Finn honest behind.

Raikkonen's scrappy afternoon got even worse when he put two wheels onto the grass in turn three - Ferrari's cursed corner - as he attempted to pass Glock, spinning round again. Following Hamilton and Heidfeld's second pit-stops shortly afterwards, however, all hell was about to let loose once more as the aforementioned German Toyota ace suffered a huge shunt after running wide into turn twelve, spinning violently across the track as his TF108 literally disintegrated and brought out - yes, you guessed it - the safety car for the third time.

That harmed Kovalainen more than anyone, with the Finn having to wait until the pit-lane opened before being able to make his second stop. He would consequently rejoin right at the rear of the field in company with Alonso and Raikkonen, an incongruous bottom three in the opening race of the 2008 campaign.

Barrichello was awarded a stop-go penalty for pitting before the pit-lane had been officially re-opened - the Brazilian pulling down his re-fueller after the lollipop board was lifted prematurely and leaving the pit-lane with the red light still showing for good measure - whilst both Kubica and Nakajima subsequently pitted for treatment to damaged noses, the former's problem proving to be terminal but the latter being able to rejoin the fray following a lengthy stop.

The action on-track, though, remained as hot as ever, with both Kovalainen and Alonso diving past a startled Raikkonen in one go - the Finn doing little to justify his reigning world champion status in the season curtain-raiser - and the opportunistic Alonso almost immediately demoting Kovalainen too to move up into sixth place.

That left Bourdais - now lying a superb fourth following Barrichello's penalty - being chased down by a pace-setting McLaren and a Renault and Ferrari driven by the sport's past two world champions in his maiden grand prix with eight laps left on the board. With Alonso having his hands full in keeping Kovalainen behind him, however, the Frenchman was afforded some welcome breathing space, but after soaking up the pressure beautifully and having driven his heart out all afternoon, a Ferrari engine failure with just three laps to go shattered the multiple Champ Car champion's dreams of scoring a handful of points on his top flight debut.

That was not the only Ferrari engine to let go on the day, though, as Raikkonen - who had dropped increasingly back away from the pack with a rough-sounding F2008 - parked his car at the entrance to the pit-lane in the race's dying stages, in a similar position to where he had drawn to a halt with fuel pump failure during qualifying. With two Ferrari engine failures in one race, whisperings about Maranello's occasionally fragile reliability in winter testing re-surfaced once more, leaving the team to walk away from the season-opener with nul points in the bag from a troubled weekend and Raikkonen's fastest lap of the race some half a second adrift of the McLaren pair's quickest efforts.

The final drama came as Kovalainen succeeded in finding a way past Alonso for fourth place on the penultimate lap, but when the unfortunate Finn accidentally hit the pit-lane speed limiter whilst attempting to tear off a visor strip on the pit straight, his Spanish rival darted back past again. No doubt the Renault star had a wry smile on his face as he shot by the car he had been driving last year, turning Ron Dennis' brief moment of elation into instant disappointment.

There was no disguising the McLaren chief's joy at Hamilton's success, though, as his young prot?g? took the chequered flag 5.5 seconds to the good at the end of 58 laps of breathless entertainment. Heidfeld held on to a strong second place, with Rosberg visibly emotional at ascending the rostrum for the first time in his increasingly impressive F1 career in third, Williams' first podium finish since, somewhat aptly, Montreal last year.

The battling Alonso and Kovalainen ended up fourth and fifth respectively, with Barrichello classified sixth - though the Honda star may yet be disqualified for leaving the pit-lane with the red light still showing. Nakajima was the final finisher in seventh - taking two points for his efforts in only his second grand prix - with the luckless Bourdais classified eighth and Raikkonen ninth.

Should Barrichello indeed lose his place, Raikkonen will inherit a point, but the real story of the day was the man who walked away with ten of them. Heading to Malaysia in just a week's time, Hamilton's message to his pursuers is clear - catch me if you can.