Nothing much has changed from a regulation standpoint, and at the front of the field nothing has changed at all. Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas claimed the first position on the grid like someone put a sign on it that read, "Reserved for Mr. Hamilton;" teammate Nico Rosberg was 0.6 behind in second, Felipe Massa in the Williams was 1.4 seconds back in third. Sebastian Vettel proved that Ferrari didn't do another Groundhog Day routine this off-season, slotting into fourth. His teammate Kimi Räikkönen was not even four-hundredths of a second behind, ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the second Williams, Daniel Ricciardo in the first Infiniti Red Bull Racing, and rookie Carlos Sainz, Jr. in the first Toro Rosso. Lotus, now powered by Mercedes, got both cars into the top ten with Romain Grosjean in ninth, Pastor Maldonado in the final spot.
However, even though the regulations are almost all carryover, in actual fact, everything has changed this year. Mercedes is even faster. Renault is even worse. Ferrari and Lotus are a lot better. Toro Rosso is looking like anything but a junior team. And McLaren is – well, let's not even get into that yet. Furthermore, this weekend was shambles: 15 cars started the race, the smallest naturally-occurring grid since 1963. Manor couldn't get its cars ready before qualifying. Bottas had to pull out after qualifying when he tore a disc in his back and couldn't pass the medical clearance tests. The gearbox in Daniil Kvyat's Red Bull gave out on the lap from the pit to the grid, and to give misery some company, the Honda in Kevin Magnussen's McLaren blew up on the same lap.
When the lights went out, Hamilton ran away and was more than a second ahead of his teammate at the end of Lap 1. The advantage disappeared, though, because behind him, at the first corner, we got our first pile-up. As Räikkönen drove around the outside of Vettel at the right-hand Turn 1 it looked like Vettel, going over the kerbing, hopped to his left and bounced into Räikkönen. The Finn crossed over to the runoff inside the left-hand Turn 2, as Sauber driver Felipe Nasr behind him tried to pass to Räikkönen's right. But the Finn came back on the track and tapped Nasr, who lurched to the right and tapped Maldonado and sent the Lotus into the right-hand wall. The twisted-up Lotus was done, and the Safety Car was out immediately so the Lotus could be recovered.
Three laps later when racing resumed, Hamilton ran away and was more than a second ahead of his teammate at the end of Lap 4. That's the way it would go for the rest of the race – Hamilton lost the lead in the pits, otherwise Rosberg never got closer than 1.3 seconds, and would cross the line in second, 1.3 seconds behind.
Vettel, who'd said he could have qualified third, proved it by finishing the race in that position. Trailing Massa in the Williams in the opening stages, he took third when Massa pitted on Lap 22 and he stayed out to lay down some fast laps. While Vettel was in, Massa was stuck behind Ricciardo, so Vettel stayed in third place and held it to the end. Late in the race it looked like Massa might at least make a fight of it, but no – the Ferrari was simply quicker. Vettel got on the podium for the first time since 2013 and showed that the best-of-the-rest fight will be between Ferrari and Williams at least for the first few races. For both he and Ferrari, who separately suffered nothing but misery last year, it will feel like victory. Remember when Hamilton left McLaren, a team in turmoil, to jump to Mercedes, a team in turmoil that had just been through a complete overhaul? Looks like Vettel did the same thing.
There'll be a few alarm bells at Ferrari, too, over two terrible pit stops for Räikkönen. The crew had trouble with is left rear tire both times, and the jackman didn't hold him back either time. After the second stop, Räikkönen got released but pulled the car over at Turn 2, the wheel having not been fastened properly. They escaped a penalty for unsafe release this time, but they'll want to do a lot better next time.
Man of the day was Sauber driver Nasr, who got his blue and yellow steed home in fifth. The Brazilian was unflappable – and the Ferrari engine behind him is quite good – holding off Ricciardo in the late stages. Even better, teammate Marcus Ericsson came home in eighth to earn Sauber a total of 14 points this year, which is 14 more than it scored all of last year. Now Sauber has to figure out what to do about former reserve driver Giedo van der Garde, who sued the Swiss outfit after it took his sponsor money last year and promised him a race seat this year, then booted him for better financial offers. Van der Garde has won judgments in three countries over breach of contract, and having seen how good the car is he'll be desperate to get in it. They have until Malaysia in two weeks to figure it out.
Ricciardo took sixth in the Red Bull, a lap down. The driver known for awesome overtaking and opportunistic victories last year had no hope of either in this race. Renault said they'd worked on reliability and had closed the gap to Mercedes, but this year's power unit has proved itself so fragile, weak, and difficult to drive that Red Bull is publicly pleading for more and better cooperation. There's gonna be a lot of fizz at the fizzy drinks team this year, and things will probably get a little quiet at Infiniti for a while.
Force India pilot Nico Hülkenberg did his usual, pulling up to seventh at the finish from 14th on the grid. The car got just 1.5 days of testing in during the pre-season so we'll undoubtedly see better performance from it, but it's run absolutely trouble-free. Teammate Sergio Perez finished tenth, giving the team a good start on points this year, which it will need – the midfield competition is a lot better everywhere. If they pull another one of their end-of-season fades, they'll be shaking hands with Manor at the bottom of the charts.
Ninth place went to rookie Carlos Sainz, Jr. in the Toro Rosso, who would have done better but for a troublesome wheel change during his pit stop. Still, for the first-timer to qualify and finish in the top ten on his first F1 foray is a good start to the team's youth brigade. His teammate, 17-year-old Max Verstappen, was in the top ten when he pitted on Lap 33, but had to pull the car over with a blown engine on the next lap – sure to be another note on the post-race debrief agenda with Renault.
Fifteen cars started, eleven finished, and the last one to cross the line was Button in the McLaren, the only driver who'd been lapped twice. After doing just 12 laps in all of pre-season testing, Honda said it turned down the output of its power unit to focus on reliability, but Magnussen still blew an engine and Button said just getting to the end of the race was "a big deal and a massive step forward." Or put another way, last place – in a race with 11 finishers – was "a good starting point." McLaren are the masters of the in-season turnaround; this is the year they'll put all of that wisdom to use.
Hamilton's victory, his seventh pole-to-flag victory in a row and 34th career win, gives him 25 points in the Driver's Championship, ahead of Rosberg with 18, and Vettel with 15. Mercedes-AMG Petronas collects the full haul of
That's where we are to start the season. Unless you drive a silver car, this one's looking rough - they're in the trenches. We'll see you in two weeks.