LEWIS Hamilton joined Arnold Schwarzenegger on the top step of the podium at the Australian Grand Prix yesterday and in unison they repeated the actor’s trademark phrase: “I’ll be back.”
Hamilton was back as the reigning world champion, back as a race winner, and gave every indication that he’ll be back on that top step many more times this season after sweeping to victory in Formula 1’s season-opening race.
The Briton led Nico Rosberg in a one-two finish for Mercedes as the team extended its 2014 dominance into the new year.
Hamilton led from start to finish and beat his team-mate by 1.3 seconds at the Albert Park circuit, with Sebastian Vettel finishing third in his first race for Ferrari.
“My team has done an awesome job and it is an incredible feeling to continue on winning from last year,” Hamilton said. “Nico was very quick throughout the race. It was really trying to manage the fuel and the tyres, not knowing the limit in terms of how far they can go. Once you get a one or two-second gap, you manage that – there is no need to eke out more. When Nico turned up the heat I was able to react.”
Rosberg once again finished runner-up, which was a position he occupied far too often last year, but was both gracious and tenacious when referring to his team-mate. “Lewis drove like a world champion today, but I was driving to the max every lap and I will be doing my best to give this guy a big run for his money,” Rosberg said.
With few people expecting anything but a one-two finish for all-conquering Mercedes, the real race in Melbourne was for best of the rest, and Vettel was delighted with taking that crown in his new scarlet race suit. “It’s not a victory, but for us it feels like a victory after a horrible season last year,” Vettel said. “There’s a lot of work ahead to beat these two and Mercedes, but I’m sure we will.”
A series of pre-race incidents meant only 15 cars started the race, and only 11 finished, with Jenson Button last in the uncompetitive McLaren-Honda.
Williams driver Felipe Massa finished fourth and Felipe Nasr was fifth for Sauber, providing some welcome good news for that team after a week of legal battles and a 2014 season without a single championship point. Nasr’s fifth was the best finish by a driver on his debut since Hamilton finished third in this race in 2007.
Local favourite Daniel Ricciardo was sixth in a disappointing race for Red Bull, which clearly has not solved the issues with their Renault engine. The Australian spent much of the race trying and failing to pass the Sauber in front of him, which was an alarming decline for a team that until recently was the sport’s pre-eminent power.
Force India drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez were seventh and tenth in a good finish by a team which made a very late start to their season preparations. Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was eighth – the first championship points for a Swede in 26 years – and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr finished an encouraging ninth on his debut.
Williams driver Valtteri Bottas was ruled out of the race by a back injury suffered in qualifying, while the McLaren of Kevin Magnussen and the Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat both suffered engine failures on the installation lap and did not start.
It was a dismal day for Lotus, with Pastor Maldonado crashing out at the first bend after being clipped from behind, and Romain Grosjean retiring after just one lap.
Toro Rosso’s 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen retired with yet more Renault engine trouble just after mid-race, and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen stopped after he was released from a pit-stop with his left rear tyre not properly fitted. Button finished last and two laps adrift.
New power-unit supplier Honda’s return to Formula 1 has so far been a wretched affair, with further embarrassment caused for the Japanese manufacturing giant when Magnussen retired on the formation lap with an as-yet-unspecified glitch.
At that stage Button, McLaren and Honda must have feared the worst, yet the 35-year-old went on to complete 56 of the 58 laps as he was twice passed by Hamilton in his Mercedes en route to 11th. That in itself was a triumph as the most laps completed by McLaren in a single stint during pre-season testing was 12.
“Today has been a good day,” said Button. “We’re still a long way off, but this is a good starting point – and I enjoyed the race. Today also really helps in terms of development. If we’d done three laps we’d have learned nothing, so we’ve learned a massive amount by completing a race distance. It was also a good opportunity for me to get used to the car and to play around with it, making adjustments in the cockpit.
“There’s a lot of work still needed – on power, driveability, set-up and downforce – but we can make big strides. As our first attempt goes, we know we’re not quick, but we did finish the race, so not a bad day.”
The second race of the season is in Malaysia on 29 March, when it seems Mercedes’ rivals will once again be fighting for third. “You have to be realistic,” Vettel said. “Thirty-four seconds down the road is a lot for everyone else. You can turn it around a little bit for the next grand prix, we can be closer, but it could be even worse.”