Jenson Button scored a dominant victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix leaving second-placed Sebastian Vettel to insist that McLaren, who saw Lewis Hamilton claim the final podium spot, are this season’s team to beat.
Hamilton had claimed pole position on Saturday but when the lights went out the start of the race it was Button who made the better getaway and he edged his team-mate out of the lead as the pair rounded turn one. Button controlled the race comfortably thereafter, although a late-race accident involving Williams’ Pastor Maldonado and the subsequent safety car period, gave brief cause for concern. Button managed the restart well, however, and when the safety car peeled off track, the McLaren driver powered into a three-second lead over Vettel that wasn’t threatened in the final laps.
Asked if he had been worried by losing the 10-second lead he had built up over Vettel during the safety car period, Button admitted it had given him pause for thought. “Yeah, you always do, especially when it’s so cold. It’s late in the afternoon, the sun’s dropping, it’s difficult to keep heat in the tyres,” he said. “That’s the last thing you want leading the pack round to the restart. I was a little bit on edge but I was able to keep heat in the tyres, save a lot of fuel, which I think was quite important for us, and get a good restart. The team said push as hard as you can for two laps after the restart to get a gap. I was able to do that which I was very happy about. And then it was about controlling the pace until the end of the race.
"To come away with Lewis’ pole yesterday and the victory today, I think puts us in a great position for the next few races and on the right foot." The dominant performance left Vettel admitting that Button’s pace was simply too much to contend with. “When the Safety Car came, I thought I would be in a good place or a good position to have a go at Jenson… but I didn’t! He was just too quick, two corners and he seemed to be gone,” he said after climbing from sixth on the grid to second. “Jenson was out of sight. There was no way we could have stayed with him. He completely deserved to win today.”
With Button taking maximum points and Hamilton taking third despite a difficult race, Vettel admitted McLaren are the early-season team to beat. Despite losing out on a 22nd career win, Vettel was pleased with his performance and that of the RB8, especially after mixed fortunes earlier in the race weekend. “It was a very positive race for us, we knew it would be a difficult one, so to come away with second and a lot of points is very important and I think the car has a lot of potential,” he said. “Obviously we would have loved to have been in a better position yesterday but as I said, we did a lot of laps and I think we understood more about the car and, yeah, now we need to address the problems and make sure that we give them a harder time next week.”
He admitted, however, that Red Bull Racing had some ground to make up on their chief rivals. “I think they were stronger this weekend,” he said. “Jenson deserved to win, he was out of reach for us. We always said in winter testing that McLaren looks very strong. They had a very solid winter, no issues with the car. They did a lot of laps every day so we expected them to be strong. Yesterday they did surprise everyone a little bit with their pace in qualifying. Today in the race I think it was looking a bit better for us, but nevertheless, they are the ones to beat at the moment.”
Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber took fourth place behind Hamilton, recovering from a bad start that also saw him involved in a first-corner clash with compatriot Daniel Ricciardo and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg. “There are some positives to take out of today,” said Webber. “Qualifying was difficult for us, but the race pace was better today, it was just that we didn’t have track position. I had a poor start, so I need to see what happened there, and then I got sandwiched at turn one. I was able to keep going and then started to build from there.
“We had a bit of luck with the Safety Car and I was quicker than Lewis at the end, but it’s a difficult track to overtake here – in Malaysia it would have been different.” he added. “Today was a strong showing and it was a good day given what we went to bed with last night, but this was a good comeback. It was a strong start.”
The top five was rounded out by Fernando Alonso, with Kamui Kobayashi sixth. Kimi Raikkonen claimed seventh for Lotus on his return to Formula One racing and the Finn was followed home by the second Sauber of Sergio Pérez, who once again maximized a one-stop strategy to vault from 22nd on the grid. Local hero Daniel Ricciardo finished ninth to grab two points on his debut for Toro Rosso, just as compatriot Mark Webber did in 2002 on his Australian debut for the Faenza-based squad, then called Minardi. The points positions were completed by Force India’s Paul Di Resta.