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.
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 mêlée 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.