A masterful performance from Jenson Button brought the British driver his third Melbourne victory as McLaren Mercedes threw down the gauntlet to Red Bull Renault in a superb Formula 1 Qantas Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.
Button beat pole-sitter and team-mate Lewis Hamilton for the first-lap lead, kept cool when the Safety Car intervened just past the halfway stage of the 58-lap race and strung together a stunning sequence of fastest laps to hold off a fast-finishing Sebastian Vettel and claim his 13th career victory.
With Hamilton third, fending off a late charge from Australia’s Mark Webber in the second Red Bull, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso next man home, the year has begun with the ‘Big Five’ of the last two seasons still in the top five positions.
Meanwhile Daniel Ricciardo recovered superbly from a first-lap coming-together with Bruno Senna’s Williams to rejoin after an unscheduled pit stop and raced superbly in the closing laps to claim two points for ninth place on debut.
By a happy coincidence it is the same haul his Aussie compatriot Webber achieved on his own first F1 appearance here 10 years ago – for the Minardi team which has since morphed into Scuderia Toro Rosso, the team Ricciardo drives for in 2012.
Button, who won here in 2009 and 2010, explained why he had become the first man since Michael Schumacher to amass three Albert Park victories.
“I’ve actually stayed in the same bedroom those three years!” he grinned.
On a more serious note, the 32-year-old was quick to emphasise the teamwork behind his brilliant individual display.
For us as a team it really shows how important the (European) winter is,” he said, “and yesterday’s qualifying really showed that. Starting the year strong for this team is very important.”
The Safety Car was called on when VItaly Petrov’s Caterham stopped in an awkward spot on the main straight. While Vettel took advantage to leap-frog Hamilton in the pits, Button put the hammer down with fastest lap after fastest lap to re-establish his superiority.
The new order suggested by Romain Grosjean’s fine third place for Lotus on the grid evaporated when the Frenchman was involved in a first-lap collision with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado’s Williams, immediately ending his hopes of a strong finish on his F1 return.
In a role reversal from Saturday, it was team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the returning 2007 world champion, who fought his way through from 18th on the grid to finish an unexpected seventh. Lotus might have been forgiven an additional smile when Maldonado’s last-lap mistake cost him sixth place – which would have yielded more points than his team managed in the whole of 2011.
The weekend promise shown by Mercedes also dimmed when Michael Schumacher ran wide at Turn 1 on the 11th lap, the bumpy excursion possibly triggering the gearbox issue that forced him out of the race. Team-mate Nico Rosberg could not sustain his early pace, losing places in the dramatic closing laps to finish out of the points in 12th.
As they did last year, both Saubers finished in the points, with Kamui Kobayashi sixth and Sergio Perez two places further back. The final point went to the Force India of Paul di Resta.
Button is the early leader in the drivers’ title chase with 25 points from Vettel’s 18, Hamilton on 15 and Webber, thanks to his best Albert Park finish, on 12.
McLaren take a 10-point lead in the constructors’ championship with them to Malaysia, 40-30 over Red Bull, with Sauber buoyed by a 12-point haul that puts them third ahead of Ferrari, for whom Felipe Massa failed to finish, and Lotus.