And they're off, ladies and gentlemen. After a tumultuous offseason that saw Robert Kubica sidelined from a rally crash, two Lotus-Renault teams embroiled in a naming rights dispute, the arrival of Pirelli tires to replace Bridgestone and the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix due to political unrest, the 2011 Formula One World Championship has kicked off in earnest with the Australian Grand Prix.
Heading down under to Albert Park, both titles are Red Bull's to defend. But preseason testing showed strong competition coming from the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes GP. Would reigning champion Vettel and company be able to hold them back to start off their defense as strong as last year? Follow the jump to find out.
[Images: Clive Mason, Paul Gilham, Vladimir Rys/Getty | Rob Griffith, Andrew Brownbill, Vincent Thian, David Callow, Daniel Munoz/AP]
Saturday's qualifying session could have just as well been pulled out of last season's calendar, with Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari as usual dominating the front of the grid. Vettel showed strongest of all, claiming pole position by nearly a full second. His wingman and hometown favorite Mark Webber landed third, McLaren's pairing of world champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button following in second and fourth, respectively. Fernando Alonso qualified fifth, his teammate Felipe Massa relegated to eighth with Renault's Vitaly Petrov impressively placing sixth on the starting grid ahead of Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, while his senior counterpart Michael Schumacher landed only eleventh behind Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber and Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso. Sauber's Sergio Perez, newcomers Paul di Resta (Force India) and Pastor Maldonado (Williams), Adrian Sutil (Force India), Rubens Barrichello (Williams), Nick Heidfeld (filling in for Robert Kubica at Renault), Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli, and Virgin's Timo Glock and Jerome d'Ambrisio rounded out the rest of the grid, while HRT failed to qualify at all under the re-instituted 107% rule.
With the stage set, the formation lap completed, and all parties eager to prove their mettle, the race got underway with Sebastian Vettel taking a commanding lead right off the line. Mark Webber narrowly missed the window to squeeze past Lewis Hamilton into the first corner as Renault's Vitaly Petrov came into his own, jumping up to fourth position on the first lap of the season, while Alonso, Massa and Button fell in line behind. Come the second lap STR's Jaime Alguersuari was already in the pits, Schumacher following suit in what would emerge as a disastrous race for the seven-time world champion.
Come lap 11, Williams' newcomer Pastor Maldonado was retired trackside and Button, having stayed glued to the Italian flag on the back of Felipe Massa's Ferrari F150º Italia in the opening laps, clipped the corner to pass his rival in an illegal move that would cost him a pit-lane drive-through penalty that he'd take on lap 18.
Webber, Alonso and Vettel were the next to pit on laps 12 through 15, shaking up the order that left Hamilton in the lead, followed by Petrov and Button, all of which had yet to pit. Vettel was running fourth and team-mate Webber sixth after pitting, sandwiching Rosberg and leading Kobayashi and Sutil, both of which had yet to stop as post-pit Alonso and Massa trailed in ninth and tenth places, respectively.
When Hamilton finally emerged from his first stop, he rejoined again in second behind Vettel who had reclaimed the lead. Button dropped to sixth after his penalty, further relegated to 12th after returning for his first tire-swap only to come under pressure from the Force India's precocious Paul di Resta. Schumacher went into the pits again on lap 19, dropping him down to a lapped last place behind even the back-marking new teams.
Multiple race-winner Rubens Barrichello performed a gutsy late-braking pass on Sauber's Kobayashi on lap 20 as Kovalainen retired his green Lotus trackside, joining Maldonado on the sidelines, but they wouldn't be the last retirements of the day. Lap 23 saw Schumacher climb out of his Silver Arrow in the Mercedes garage, after which Barrichello slammed into Rosberg defending his line in the other Merc to see the team taken out of the race entirely in a matter of mere seconds.
Barrichello spun, recovered, returned to the pits to replace his damaged front wing and was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty for the Rosberg collision. Meanwhile Button demonstrated how the new moveable rear wing can come into play as he passed Kobayashi for 7th place.
Around the halfway mark some drivers had begun pitting for the second time. At lap 30 of 58, Vettel still held the lead ahead of Hamilton, Petrov and Massa (all on one stop so far), followed by Webber, Alonso and Button (two stops each), then Kobayashi, Sutil, di Resta, Heidfeld and Perez (one stop), STR's Buemi and Alguersuari (on two stops apiece), Barrichello (on three including the penalty) with Trulli and d'Ambrosio picking up the rear and five drivers (Rosberg, Glock, Kovalainen, Schumacher and Maldonado) retired.
Lap 33 saw Hamilton run perilously wide into the grass, causing damage to his McLaren's under-tray, but that didn't stop him from retaining his second place position when he headed into the pits, following Vettel who held on to his lead returning from his second pit stop as well. The biggest surprise of the day, however, came when Sauber's rookie Sergio Perez, who opted for only one stop the entire race instead of the two or three taken by other drivers, set the fastest lap (up to that point) on his Formula One race debut.
Come lap 42 Vettel still lead Hamilton as Alonso trailed in third. Webber was just ahead of Petrov before the Aussie went for his third pit stop, Massa and Button in sixth and seventh until the Brit passed the Brazilian who pitted a few laps later, Sauber's Perez and Kobayashi were showing strong in eighth and ninth and Buemi was in position for the last point.
After a tumultuous day Barrichello parked his Williams next to his newcomer team-mate Maldonado's in the garage, while his troubled countryman Massa labored to finally squeeze by Buemi for P9.
Across the line after 58 laps, Vettel took the checkered flag at a substantial lead – without the benefit of the KERS boost system mind you – ahead of Hamilton. Finally emerging from Kubica's shadow while casting his own over Heidfeld and proving his mettle in his own right, Vitaly Petrov rounded out the podium for his best result to date. Alonso had to settle for fourth, while Webber barely made it across the finish line in fifth place to park his smoking Red Bull at the pit lane exit. Button followed in sixth, followed impressively by the Sauber pairing of Perez and Kobayashi, Massa taking ninth and Buemi rounding out the top ten.
Sutil, di Resta, Alguersuari, Heidfeld, Trulli, d'Ambrosio and Glock all finished but earned no points. And so concludes the 2011 Australian Grand Prix, the end of the beginning, as we head to Malaysia on April 10 for the round two. Stay tuned.