Walk in the park for Sebastian Vettel

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel got his world championship defense off to the best possible start in Albert Park on Sunday evening. The German beat Lewis Hamilton’s KERS-assisted rush as they had a drag race to the first corner, and thereafter that was all she wrote. Vettel was 2.4s ahead at the end of the opening lap, and simply controlled the pace to win by 22.2s after a problem with the floor of Hamilton’s McLaren caused an off-course moment in Turn One on Lap 32 and cost him some downforce. At times the Englishman was able to match Vettel’s pace and he did a better job controlling his tyres in the first part, as both ran two-stop strategies in a race in which all the gloomy predictions about Pirelli’s tires proved completely unfounded.

Behind them, Red Bull’s Mark Webber originally ran third ahead of fast-starting Vitaly Petrov in the Renault, who benefited when McLaren’s Jenson Button kept Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso out wide going into Turn One at the start. As Webber faded after being the first to change tires, Petrov moved into the third place he maintained throughout as he became the first Russian ever to stand on the podium after an excellent race.

In the closing stages he must have been thinking of Abu Dhabi as a recovered Alonso, who like Webber was on a three-stop strategy, began to haul him in. But as Petrov finished 8.2s adrift of Hamilton, the Spaniard’s Ferrari was still 1.2s behind by the flag.

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Jenson Button had a miserable race for McLaren, unable to pass a tough Felipe Massa in the opening stages despite the drag reduction rear wing. He got by the Ferrari on Lap 11 after having to run off the track as Massa squeezed him, whereupon Alonso also slipped ahead of Massa. The race stewards later gave the 2009 champion a drive-through penalty for going outside the track limits, and that compromised his race completely.

At the end, however, he pushed ahead of three-stopping Massa at the end of the pit straight going into Lap 54, and brought the second MP4-26 home in sixth place behind an unhappy Webber, who pulled off the track immediately past the pits after crossing the line. Adrian Newey said later that he had no idea what was wrong with the Australian’s car during a disappointing race.

Sauber’s Sergio Perez was another sensation. Driving on his debut with the spirit of Pedro Rodriguez at his shoulder, the young Mexican drove an incredible race with just one pit stop (up to four had been predicted) and beat team mate Kamui Kobayashi for seventh place on a great day for Peter Sauber’s team. The Swiss cars’ pace was too much for Toro Rosso, who saw a resurgent Sebastien Buemi fighting with Massa for ninth place. The Swiss moved ahead on Lap 51, only to be repassed by the Ferrari three laps later.

Rookie Paul di Resta ran 10th in the opening stages after narrowly avoiding a Turn Three clash between Mercedes GP’s Michael Schumacher and Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. He was overtaken by Force India team mate Adrian Sutil, got ahead again after their first of two stops, and traded lap times with the German as they headed home 11th and 12th. It was a very strong performance from the young Scot.

Alguersuari recovered from the first-lap tag with Schumacher, which damaged his Toro Rosso’s front wing and necessitated an early pit stop, while Schumacher got his right rear Pirelli torn off and later retired his Mercedes on safety grounds after replacing the damaged tyre at the end of the lap. With Nico Rosberg losing his engine after damage from a strike by Rubens Barrichello's Williams, it was not a great day for the Silver Arrows

Nor was it for Nick Heidfeld, who was totally overshadowed by his Renault team mate and could not better an unimpressive 14th place ahead of Jarno Trulli’s surviving Lotus and Jerome D’Ambrosio’s Virgin.

Barrichello hit Rosberg in Turn Three when an adventurous overtaking move went wrong, which was a shame as he’s been flying in the early stages after losing ground in the opening lap traffic. Williams Team mate Pastor Maldonado was the first retirement when his FW33 stopped out on the track.

Timo Glock made several pits stops for attention to his Virgin, while Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus succumbed to a water leak.

Vettel now leads the world championship with 25 points to Hamilton’s 18, Petrov’s 12, and Alonso’s 10, while Red Bull lead the constructors’ title chase with 35 points from McLaren on 24, Renault on 15, Ferrari on 14, Sauber on 10 and Toro Rosso on one.