Sebastian Vettel won the Formula One season-opening Australian Grand Prix once again, as he did last year, beating his championship rival Lewis Hamilton into second place. Hamilton had led for the opening half from pole but Vettel and Ferrari were able to take advantage of a virtual safety car period to take the lead and did enough to ensure they held it despite a spirited push from Hamilton. Vettel's team-mate Kimi Räikkönen ensured the weekend as a whole went well for Ferrari with third place.
Vettel has won twice before in Australia, for Red Bull in 2011 and for Ferrari at last year’s race. It is his 48th career victory, after five wins last season as he challenged Hamilton for the title.
For the German driver it is the perfect start to a campaign, which, should he win would give him five titles, equalling Juan Manuel Fangio and behind only Michael Schumacher's tally of seven. He had been circumspect during testing and in the build-up to the race. Ferrari were strong out of the blocks here last year and although out-classed by Hamilton in qualifying he had been confident that the Scuderia would show better pace in the race and he proved that they are once again intent on taking the fight to their rivals.
Hamilton had joked after qualifying that he had wanted “to wipe the smile off” Vettel’s face, which the German had not found amusing. His focus he insisted was what happened in the race and he was right to do so, when it mattered he has come away with the points, leaving Mercedes to begin an examination of how such form in qualifying did not translate into greater dominance in the race.
“We are getting there,” said Vettel. “We still have some more work to do but we are getting there.”
Hamilton held the lead into turn one, although briefly pressured by Raikkonen from second he held the place to the end of the lap. He was comfortable in the clean air and the chasing Ferraris were unable to put him under immediate pressure. He had a 2.2 second gap to Räikkönen by lap seven and was also 3.5 seconds clear of Vettel. The Ferraris were able to stay with the Mercedes as they had last year but did not enjoy sufficient performance advantage to pass.
Behind them Kevin Magnussen in the Haas passed Max Verstappen for fourth as the latter looked to go up the inside of Vettel from the off. The promise Haas showed in testing was borne out and Magnussen was able to hold his advantage until Verstappen lost his rear going through one and dropped three places to the second Haas of Romain Grosjean, his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg. It was a disappointing opening to the season for the young Dutchman, who ultimately finished in sixth.
Ferrari triggered the first round of stops, bringing Räikkönen in on lap 19 for the soft tyres and Hamilton followed him for the same rubber a lap later and rejoined comfortably in front of the Finn. Vettel stayed out however until the virtual safety car was triggered by Grosjean’s retirement and, taking advantage of the speed limitation those on track had to adhere to, he was able to stop and exit just in front of Hamilton, who was left bewildered about how he had lost the lead.
He team admitted they “thought we were safe but there was obviously something wrong”. But after the full safety car was deployed and then racing resumed on lap 31, it was Vettel who had the clean air and the advantage.
Hamilton stayed within a second of Vettel and did not lack for ambition. “Can I push yet? I am going for it,” he said, but lost time locking-up into turn nine on lap 46 and with the tyres going off he could do no more. As had been the case last year he was unable to put his car close enough to pass and the German held the lead until the flag. Once again Vettel has opened the season on the front foot and with the lead in the title fight.
Ricciardo made a spirited recovery to finish in fourth place from eighth on the grid, having harried Räikkönen to the death but been unable to pass him. McLaren had their best result since 2016 with Fernando Alonso making the most of their new Renault engine to claim fifth.
Hülkenberg was in seventh in front of Valtteri Bottas who had recovered from 15th on the grid, with the second McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne in ninth and the second Renault of Carlos Sainz in 10th.
Magnussen’s spirited start was not rewarded. He went off with a wheel not properly attached on lap 24, a disappointment that was swiftly doubled when Grosjean’s went out with the same problem a lap later and the team will have to swiftly review its pit procedures.