Hamilton makes perfect start to title bid

Lewis Hamilton powered his bid for the 2008 Formula One world championship to the perfect start with victory in a frenetic Australian Grand Prix.

The McLaren driver dominated from pole position, overcoming three safety car periods as only seven cars made it to the end of the 58-lap race - taking the chequered flag 5.4 seconds ahead of BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld.

Nico Rosberg finished an impressive third for Williams but it was a disastrous day for Ferrari as both Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa failed to finish.

A jubilant Hamilton was heard on his car radio telling the McLaren team: "Fantastic job. The car was incredible. Thanks very much."

Having come out on top in Saturday's qualifying session, Hamilton made a clean getaway from pole position as the lack of traction control proved little problem for the 23-year-old, before moving across the track to cover the inside line and

keep Robert Kubica at bay on the way into the first corner.

The Pole was on his tail through the first chicane before the safety car was deployed after Giancarlo Fisichella was launched into the air, ending the Italian's race.

The first corner problems also saw Massa pit after depositing his Ferrari into the barrier as he lost out in a battle for third with Heikki Kovalainen, while four other cars including Jenson Button's Honda and Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri, were forced to retire.

The main beneficiary was Raikkonen, who had managed to move his Ferrari up to eight having started a disappointing 15th on the grid. After the safety car came in at the end of lap two, Hamilton put his foot down and quickly established a commanding lead over Kubica, setting fastest laps in quick succession to open up a 7.6-second gap by lap nine. Massa, meanwhile, had managed to rejoin the race but well down the field.

Kubica pitted at the end of lap 16 and slipped down to fourth, before Hamilton made his first stop the following lap and rejoined in fourth behind Heidfeld.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, had got the bit between his teeth and was hounding Rubens Barrichello, attempting one pass down the outside of turn three before eventually getting his man down the inside at the same place to claim sixth.

Hamilton regained the lead when Heidfeld, Rosberg and Kovalainen all came in for fresh tyres and fuel, the latter managing to get out in front of the hard-charging Raikkonen in second place after his stop.

Massa then punted David Coulthard out of the race when trying to take 10th place up the inside of turn one, which brought out the safety car for the second time on lap 26 and eroded Hamilton's 12-second advantage over his McLaren team-mate.

Massa eventually called it a day soon after.

After the re-start, Raikkonen managed to pass Kovalainen at turn three but could not prevent his Ferrari careering into the gravel trap and he was forced to pit before rejoining in 12th.

Undeterred, Hamilton set about re-establishing his cushion in trademark fashion, setting a new fastest lap on lap 39.

Heidfeld had moved up to third in his BMW, while Rosberg was enjoying a strong outing for Williams in fourth.

Raikkonen then spun on lap 42 as his Melbourne woes continued before Hamilton made his second stop, an 8.6 second effort as he fed in behind Heidfeld in fourth again.

The German was next to stop before the safety car again came out on lap 45 when Timo Glock ran wide at turn 12 and his car began to disintegrate down the straight after hitting bumps in the grass.

Barrichello pitted from third and drove off with fuel hose still attached, but incurred a 10-second stop/go penalty for pitting under the safety car anyway. The Brazilian still finished a creditable sixth.

Kovalainen was forced to come in from the lead, which saw the Finn slide down to ninth, before the safety car came in at end of lap 47.

Fernando Alonso then passed Kovalainen before Raikkonen, who was enduring an eventful afternoon, again stopped in the pit lane four laps from end, not far from the spot where he came to rest in yesterday's qualifying session.

Sebastien Bourdais was on course for an incredible fourth place on his Formula One debut before he retired with smoke coming out the back of his Toro Rosso near the end, although he was still classified eighth.

Kovalainen then passed Alonso, but the Spaniard retook the position on the home straight as they finished fourth and fifth respectively,.

Rosberg claimed third, 8.1 seconds behind Hamilton, with Kazuki Nakajima seventh in the other Williams.

But nothing could stop Hamilton's serene progress to a fifth career victory and an excellent start to the new season.

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