By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari on Sunday to dash Mercedes’ hopes of extending their dominance into a fourth successive season of Formula One.
The German cruised to his 43rd race victory with a 9.9 second gap to Mercedes’ runner-up Lewis Hamilton, with the Briton’s new team mate, Valtteri Bottas, finishing third on a glorious afternoon at Albert Park.
The victory was Vettel’s fourth for Ferrari but his first since the Singapore Grand Prix in September 2015.
That triumph was also the last time Ferrari had topped the podium but Vettel’s victory underlined the huge leap in performance made by the glamour team, whose cars showed impressive pace and reliability in winter testing.
“For all of us, it is a positive surprise,” a beaming Vettel said at the post-race media conference.
“The big difference was being able to deliver a really good car… I think the new car in general obviously is fantastic and is a great reward, a big relief for everyone.”
For the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era, which started in 2014, there is a non-Mercedes driver at the top of the championship standings.
Vettel’s 2007 championship-winning team mate Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen one behind.
On the front row next to pole-sitter Hamilton, Vettel got off to a sluggish start and his British rival broke clear to avoid Albert Park’s usual messy log-jam at turn one.
But Hamilton was soon complaining on the team radio about his car’s grip and was first to pit on lap 18 to change tyres.
It proved a turning point as he rejoined behind Verstappen and was unable to pass the feisty Dutch teenager.
As Hamilton vented on the team radio, Vettel forged ahead.
The German pitted at lap 23 and exited the pit-lane just in front of Verstappen, who was still gamely holding off Hamilton while riding his tyres thin.
Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff was enraged. Television pictures showed him pounding his fist into a desk in the team garage.
Vettel showed the reigning constructors’ champions a clean set of heels and quickly established a six-second gap, which only got wider as the race progressed.
After crossing the finish line, Vettel howled in ecstasy and thousands of red-clad Ferrari fans flooded onto the lakeside circuit to share in the German’s triumph.
Fans of home racer Daniel Ricciardo were left disappointed, however, after the Australian’s race ended midway through at turn three, his Red Bull stopping with smoke billowing out.
He had earlier started from pit-lane two laps behind, after suffering a sensor problem with his gearbox that prevented him from taking his place at the grid.
It was a better day for Felipe Massa, who came sixth in his ‘comeback’ race following his short-lived retirement from Williams last year.
Force India also enjoyed a strong race, with Sergio Perez coming seventh and French newcomer Esteban Ocon also in the points after running 10th.
Reliability problems were rife in other teams, however, with seven cars failing to finish, including McLaren’s twice champion Fernando Alonso and Williams’ Canadian debutant Lance Stroll.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)