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Masterful Vettel leads from front to launch title defence in style

World champion dominates in Melbourne but rival Hamilton is happy with second

If anyone harboured any aspirations for the Australian Grand Prix yesterday, Sebastian Vettel disabused them the moment the starting lights went out. As Lewis Hamilton's McLaren spun its wheels and was saved from Mark Webber's Red Bull only by the timely application of the KERS power-boost button, the world champion surged into a lead that was never endangered.

Vettel was 2.4sec ahead of Hamilton at the end of the opening lap, and simply controlled the pace to win by 22.2sec after a problem with the floor on Hamilton's car caused him an off-course moment in Turn One on the 32nd lap and cost him some crucial downforce.

"It was a shame," Hamilton said, "because in the first part of the race the car felt really good and I was able to start closing Sebastian down. People often say that I have an aggressive driving style, but I think today I showed that I can be very easy on the tyres, and the only reason I stopped when I did was that we wanted to stay in touch with Seb who had already stopped."

Vettel acknowledged that the McLaren was as quick as his Red Bull in race trim, after outqualifying it by eight-tenths of a second, but the reality was that the race was his to lose and he never looked remotely like doing that.

"Obviously it was a good race," he grinned, fresh from embracing his father, Norbert, on the podium. "We were on the clean side of the grid and I got a good getaway, and that was crucial. I looked in my mirrors and saw Lewis fighting with Mark, so I knew that was good. I could pull away quite easily to begin with, but when we reached the cliff as the tyres saw more degradation, Lewis caught up. We timed our first pit stop well, and then it was crucial for me to overtake Jenson [Button] when I rejoined."

This he did insouciantly, round the outside in Turn Four on the 15th lap. "I could do it immediately, so that was very important, and Lewis didn't push so hard in the second half. With that pressure gone I could control the situation better. There were a lot of things for us to learn today, and we move forward from here."

Chilling words for everyone else, especially as Red Bull were not using the KERS energy storage system run by their main rivals – McLaren, Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari.

Despite Hamilton's tyre conservation, which came on a day when all of the gloomy predictions about the anticipated short lifespan of Pirelli's tyres proved completely unfounded, it was the loose floor of the McLaren that finally blunted what slim chance of victory the Briton had. "The guys around me seemed to get better starts," he mused. "I'd changed the clutch settings as I was asked to on the grid lap, but maybe we made changes that were too aggressive because when I dumped the clutch I got masses of wheelspin. Fortunately I had KERS to save me, otherwise I would have lost second place to Mark.

"The floor was damaged, which lost me quite a lot of downforce because when it touched the ground it stalled the airflow, and that made me go off briefly in Turn One. After that it was best to nurse the car and bring it home for the points.

"This is a great platform for us to push from. We have upgrades coming for the car and better understanding of the set-up and the tyres. I think we can definitely take this and be very proud of ourselves. The guys did a great job coming into this race. Two weeks ago we didn't expect to be in the top five, so to come second is great. And this is the longest the car has ever lasted."

In the wake of the front two Webber lost third place in a gradual decline, leaving Renault's Vitaly Petrov to drive an excellent race to the first podium finish for a Russian in Formula One. After being hung out to dry at the start, Fernando Alonso fought aggressively through to fourth, not far behind, in a Ferrari that went much better in the higher race-day temperature than it had in qualifying, while Webber finished an unhappy fifth ahead of Button. The latter's race had been compromised when he was forced to go off the track during a duel with an intransigent Felipe Massa and thus earned a drive-through penalty from the race stewards, who included the former driver Johnny Herbert, for overtaking after running off the track. This was a little harsh, as Massa left him nowhere else to go.

Further back Sauber's Mexican rookie Sergio Perez drove superbly and appeared to have been rewarded for a one-stop strategy gamble with seventh place in his first grand prix, but there was a cruel sting in the tail for the team when he and his eighth-placed colleague, Kamui Kobayashi, were excluded for technical infringements.

It meant that a notably confident performance by fellow rookie Paul di Resta in the less competitive Force India, which had yielded a no less worthy 12th place after he had matched experienced team-mate Adrian Sutil's pace, was elevated to 10th, thus earning him a point on his debut.

The mischievous Vettel could not resist a little post-race teasing when he was asked if he had, after all, used KERS after problems with the system on Friday. "I don't know what source you have," he chuckled to the press, "but your challenge is to find out! I was pressing some buttons..." When informed that team principal Christian Horner had already admitted that Red Bull did not use the device, Vettel laughed harder. "He could have told me that before the race – I pressed the button all race, and wondered why nothing happened!"

The scrum around Red Bull afterwards almost mirrored that in Abu Dhabi when Vettel won the crown last year, but as far as his rivals were concerned the day's events in Albert Park were no laughing matter.