Lewis Hamilton shrugged off the disappointment of losing the 2007 championship at the final round and started the new season back at the front of the title race.
He took a cool-headed win in a chaotic race at Melbourne that was in many ways a re-run of his maiden win in Canada last year: a string of crashes including a very lucky escape for Timo Glock saw several safety car interruptions.
The McLaren team will have drawn satisfaction from an atypically poor performance from Ferrari – neither F2008 was still running at the end due to a combination of drivers errors and technical problems.
Five cars eliminated on lap one
Robert Kubica got a fractionally better start from the front row of the grid than pole-sitter Hamilton, and the BMW driver tried but failed to find passing places as they rounded the opening bends.
Further back all the innuendo about Felipe Massa’s struggles with traction control appeared to be vindicated when the Ferrari driver spun into the wall at the first turn, before heading back to the pits to replace a damaged front wing.
Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella all came together at the first corner and got no further into the race. They were joined in retirement by Mark Webber and Anthony Davidson, who collided on the exit of turn three while delayed by Kazuki Nakajima. Nelson Piquet’s car also sustained damage, but he continued.
Nakajima picked up a damaged front wing and headed into the pits while the safety car came out. Meanwhile Kimi Raikkonen had taken advantage of the carnage around him to leap from 15th to eighth in one lap.
Hamilton pulls away
Hamilton easily kept the lead at the re-start and it quickly became clear Kubica did not have the pace to keep up with him. By lap eight Hamilton was 4.3s ahead, and the following lap he pulled another 1.3s clear. His lead had grown to 10.6s by lap 15 and two laps later it transpired that Kubica had less fuel on board as well, as the BMW drier ducked into the pits.
Heikki Kovalainen had held a solid third ahead of Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld. Jarno Trulli then had a short gap ahead of Rubens Barrichello, the Honda driver fending off Raikkonen. The Ferrari driver was carrying a heavy fuel load despite being one of few drivers on the softer compound tyres, and made several attempts to pass Barrichello before muscling past at turn three on lap 19.
Job done, he now began to unleash some of the Ferrari’s speed that we’d seen in practice and expected them to dominate the race with.
Hamilton had pitted on lap 18 but Kovalainen stayed out until the 23rd tour. It’s not clear if the Finn have lasted longer – the fact that he came out just in front of Raikkonen, now third, suggests his moved might have been timed by McLaren to compromise Ferrari.
Raikkonen goes off
Raikkonen appeared to have been thrown a lifeline when the safety car appeared on lap 27 – Massa was in the wars again, this time colliding with David Coulthard as he tried to pass the Red Bull driver.
It was the kind of collision where both driver had the right to feel aggrieved (and feeling on the Live Comments was that blame was shared between the two) but as Coulthard was the one eliminated on the spot he relieved his angry with a four-letter tirade on British television.
Strangely, Ferrari elected not to pit Raikkonen when the pit lane opened again on lap 29. He had by now done half the race on the softer compound tyres, which were showing obvious signs of wear, and was surely not far off needing a fuel stop. Yet they kept him out while Kubica, Fernando Alonso (who, low on fuel, only just made it), Timo Glock, and Nakajima all pitted.
It was another dropped ball from the team who had already compromised their weekend by sending Raikkonen out to qualify with the wrong fuel pump settings. That caused the problem which left him 15th on the grid.
As strategic blunders go it was not quite on a par with what McLaren did at Shanghai last year, but it certainly contributed to Raikkonen’s mistake at the restart. Trying to pass Kovalainen, he braked too late for turn three and went off, creeping through the gravel trap and back onto the track.
That left him eleventh behind the leading McLarens, Heidfeld, Rosberg, Barrichello, Sebastien Bourdais, Kubica, Alonso, Nakajima and Glock. He was only ahead of Takuma Sato’s Super Aguri, who was about to retire. Also out by now were Massa, Nelson Piquet (the Renault driver having an awful debut) and Adrian Sutil.
Raikkonen quickly caught Glock but made his second mistake of the day trying to pass the Toyota drive at turn three. The world champion put his left wheels on the grass at the entry to the corner and the car got away from him – just as it had in free practice, and just as it had while he was leading this race last yet. Again he gathered it up and kept going.
Glock’s big hit
The race seemed to have settled down again until, on lap 45, Glock’s shattered Toyota slithered into view. Replays showed the car running wide on the exit of turn 12, as drivers had been doing all weekend. But Glock had run over an escape road and the bump thrown the car into the air, breaking front and rear suspension as it landed.
Glock was tremendously lucky not to have been pointing towards the barrier when he hit the bump or he would have had even more violent impact. The safety car was out once again.
This was no problem for Hamilton, who had made his final stop on lap 43, but it spoiled his team-mate’s race as he would now have to pit after the safety car period and fall back into the pack.
While all this was going on Rubens Barrichello came in for one of the worst pit stops ever seen in F1. First he pitted while the pit lane was closed, earning himself a time penalty. Then he pulled away with the fuel hose still attached, knocking his mechanics over. And he left the pits while the red light was on, for which he was later disqualified. This from the man who’s about to become F1’s most experienced driver this year.
Scramble to the flag
As the safety car peeled in at the end of lap 49 Nakajima walloped the rear of Kubica’s BMW. That ended Kubica’s race but Nakajima was able to continue after pitting for a new nose. The stewards were unimpressed, however, and handed the Williams driver a ten-place grid penalty for next weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
The final laps were hectic for all but the top three of Hamilton, Heidfeld and Rosberg. Kovalainen passed Raikkonen for sixth at turn 13, but as the pair ran wide Alonso capitalised and nipped past both of them.
Ferrari’s weekend turned from bad to worse when Raikkonen dropped back with engine trouble, before coasting to a halt five laps from home. However, that didn’t stop him scoring a point.
After Barrichello’s penalty Alonso and Kovalainen caught Bourdais who was running fourth. The Toro Rosso driver kept them at bay until Alonso’s tyres started to go off, after which the gap between them opened up again. But crushing misfortune hit Bourdais two laps from the end when his Ferrari engine also gave up.
Kovalainen seemed to have secured fourth place when he scraped past Alonso on the penultimate tour at turn 14. But on his way down the straight he raised an arm to remove a tear-off strip – and knocked his pit limiter by mistake. Alonso did remarkably well not to hit the McLaren, and swerved past to take fourth place back.
Hamilton had begun the race with one of his old karting rivals alongside him – Kubica – and ended it on the podium with another – Rosberg – who had his first taste of champagne in F1.
Heidfeld did his usual unobtrusive, dependable job in second place, while Nakajima backed Rosberg up with six place (after Barrichello’s disqualification) to put Williams second in the constructors’ points standings.
With the Ferraris self-destructing and the second safety car arriving with perfect timing, the cards fell in Hamilton’s favour this weekend. But after a winter of living with the memory of those costly mistakes at the end of 2007, it was his rivals who faltered in the first race of 2008.
And for the fans, an exciting first race promises a season of excitement.
More about the Australian Grand Prix