Over the course of the two weeks between Bahrain and Australia
, it seemed like drivers and team managers alike were falling all over themselves to admit how much faster the new Red Bull
car was than theirs. And as if to drive the point home, on Saturday Vettel and Webber lapped Albert Park faster than anyone else to place their cars at the very top of the time sheet, securing the front row – pole and second positions – on the grid. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso
added a splash of red to the blue qualifying "podium" in third place, with Jenson Button
(McLaren) alongside him and Felipe Massa (Ferrari
), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes
), Michael Schumacher
(Mercedes), Rubens Barrichello (Williams), Robert Kubica (Renault
) and Adrian Sutil (Force India
) rounding out the remainder of the top ten of the 24 cars on the starting grid.
Once the lights flashed green Down Under, however, all bets were off. Vettel managed to hold on to the lead, while Massa passed both Webber and Alonso to take second. The move left Alonso sandwiched between Button and Schumacher, the reigning champion (Jenson) sending the double champion (Fernando) into the returning seven-time champion (Michael). Alonso spun his car on the track and fell down to near the end of the order, while Schumacher's front wing was left damaged, forcing him into the pits.
Amidst the chaos on the wet track, Robert Kubica impressively managed to leapfrog from 9th on the grid to 4th place, a position on which he'd improve before crossing the finish line. Meanwhile Sauber's
Kamui Kobayashi and Williams' Nico Hulkenberg collided, sending both back to their respective garages. They'd soon be followed by Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi and Lotus
' Jarno Trulli, with HRT's Bruno Senna, Renault's Vitaly Petrov, and both Virgin drivers Lucas Di Grassi and Timo Glock joining them – with one other crucial DNF – before the race was through, accounting for 10 out of the 24 cars failing to finish the race in the wet conditions.
With the safety car deployed after the wreckage and pulled back in on lap 4, the two multiple world champions picked their way through the back-markers to get back up to the front of the field, taking turns along the way setting the fastest lap times. Lewis Hamilton, who had failed to advance beyond the second qualifying session to start the race in 11th, fought his way up the field as well, while Webber and Massa fought wheel-to-wheel for second place.
With the rain stopped and the track slowly drying up, Button played an aggressive strategy by pitting early on lap 7 for slick tires. The move seemed risky given the predictions for more rain, especially after the defending champion nearly lost it at the first corner exiting the pits. But by lap 9 the lion's share of the field went in for dry-weather tires as well, while Button's risky move paid off in spades.
A quarter of the way through the race, Vettel was still in the lead. Button followed in second, with Kubica in third place, followed by Rosberg, Massa, Webber, Hamilton, Barrichello and de la Rosa, while Schumacher struggled down-field to get back into the top ten.
A couple of laps later, more excitement followed as a three-way battle erupted for 5th place. Webber crept by Massa, but with Hamilton close behind, the Brit snuck past both the fighting Australian and Brazilian. Webber slid off the track, and Massa emerged in front of both to win the bout.
But that wasn't the end for these three. On lap 22 the fight resumed: While Hamilton passed Massa, Alonso closing in fast tried to leapfrog both, Webber managed to sneak by. Hamilton emerged in the contested fifth position, followed by Massa, Webber and Alonso. Never relenting, Webber stayed glued to Massa while up ahead Hamilton closed in on Rosberg.
Then the unthinkable happened for the race leader. After nearly half a race distance of leading straight from pole position, Sebastian Vettel braked late and sailed wide off a tight corner, winding up beached in the sand trap with no escape. And just like that, the race was over for the leader.
The slip-up on Vettel's part left Button in the lead, Kubica in second and Hamilton third as Rosberg. Massa, Webber and Alonso followed. Williams' Rubens Barrichello was in eighth, Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi followed in ninth and Sauber's Pedro de la Rossa rounded out the top ten.
All the while Schumacher got held up again trying to get around Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso. On lap 30, Schumi pitted for the third time – a particular rarity this season given the ban on refueling.
Two laps later Hamilton had gotten past Rosberg and stayed glued on Kubica's tail, but couldn't manage to get past the Renault. In a further gamble on strategy, Ross Brawn called in Rosberg from fourth for fresh tires, putting him back out in sixth place ahead of Webber. Hamilton would follow into the pit box shortly after for new rubber, while most of the rest stuck with a one-stop strategy as they followed the dry racing line around the otherwise damp track.
As the field closed in on the checkered flag, Button remained way out in the lead, while Kubica, Massa and Alonso remained close together waiting for the moment to pounce. Hamilton on fresh tires was closing in fast, but Webber stuck right on his tail in a white-knuckle five-car train.
On the second to last lap, Hamilton tried to get around Alonso, but his former McLaren team-mate wouldn't give an inch. With no room to maneuver, Hamilton collided with Webber, sending both cars spinning off the track. Hamilton's McLaren largely undamaged, he got right back into the chase, but Webber was forced into the pit to replace his front wing.
One lap later, Jenson Button claimed the checkered flag – waved by none other than John Travolta – for his new team at McLaren. Robert Kubica – who never managed to finish the Australian Grand Prix in his four years at BMW Sauber – impressed tremendously with a second place finish, the best result for Renault since Alonso in 2008. Felipe Massa rounded out the podium for Ferrari, his second podium in as many races so far this year. Fernando Alonso finally came in fourth, followed by Nico Rosberg in fifth, Hamilton in sixth, Liuzzi in seventh, Barrichello in eighth, Mark Webber in a disappointing ninth and Michael Schumacher, after a couple of unexpected final-lap passes, finished last in the points in tenth place. STR's Alguersuari, Sauber's de la Rosa, Lotus' Kovalainen and HRT's Karun Chandhok finished outside the points, no better off than the ten who didn't finish at all.
The results of the tumultuous race still leave Fernando Alonso in the lead with 37 points, Felipe Massa close behind with 33 in second, and Jenson Button just a heartbeat away with 31. Hamilton, Rosberg, Kubica, Vettel, Schumacher, Liuzzi and Webber round out the top ten in the drivers' standings. Ferrari, meanwhile, enjoys a healthy lead at 70 points in the constructors' standings, ahead of McLaren's 54 and Mercedes' 29.
With seventeen more rounds to go, tune in again next Sunday, April 4 for the results from the Malaysian Grand Prix.