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Hamilton, Mercedes start ’15 the way they ended ’14

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 15 2015

Lewis Hamilton won Sunday's season-opening Formula One race in Australia.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Reigning World Driving Champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes AMG teammate Nico Rosberg continued their stranglehold on the FIA’s Formula One World Championship Sunday, posting a runaway 1-2 finish in the 2015 season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Pole-sitter Hamilton, a two-time world champion, finished 1.360-seconds in front of Rosberg at the conclusion of 58 laps/191 miles around the 3.3-mile, 16-turn Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne. And while Sebastian Vettel finished third in his highly-anticipated debut for Scuderia Ferrari, that result was muted by the fact the four-time world champion was a massive 34.523-seconds behind the Brit.

Hamilton covered the distance in 1 hour, 31-minutes, 54.067-seconds. After a clean start, Hamilton steadily built a lead that grew to approximately four seconds. Rosberg remained on-point, his deficit ranging from one-second to 2.5-seconds for most of the race. But Hamilton, who won a series-high 11 of 19 races last year, said that gap was more than enough for him to maintain control en route to his seventh win in his past eight starts.

“It’s an incredible feeling to carry on from last year,” said Hamilton, who scored his 34th career victory. “Once you get a two-second gap you try to manage that. There’s no need to eke out more. When Nico turned up the heat, I was able to react to it. Otherwise, it was a phenomenal race for both of us.

“Nico drove very well and Sebastian must’ve done a great job to be where he is today. I’ve not seen the times and everything, but I think the Ferraris have taken a huge step forward. Clearly they’ve made one of the biggest steps, so we definitely cannot back off because I’m sure and I anticipate we may have a good fight with them at some stage this year.”

Vettel, who exited Infiniti Red Bull Racing at season’s end for his “dream ride,” deadpanned: “Really? It’s a big gap, a lot for everyone else.”

Rosberg, who won five races last year but still finished 67 points behind Hamilton, diplomatically added, “Lewis drove like a world champion today. But I was driving to the max every lap and I will be doing my best to give this guy a big run for his money.”

The attrition-filled event saw only 15 cars start and 11 go the distance. Williams Racing’s lone starter, Felipe Massa, placed fourth ahead of rookie Felipe Nasr, who gave Sauber its first points since 2013. The anticipated field of 20 cars was reduced to 18 before qualifying, when financially strapped Manor Grand Prix/Ferrari (formerly Marussia) teammates Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi failed to turn a wheel during the three free practice sessions.

Meanwhile, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas was ruled out prior to the start due to a back injury suffered in knockout qualifying on Saturday, reducing the grid to 17. Before the field could complete its warm-up lap, McLaren/Honda’s Kevin Magnussen – filling-in for the recuperating Fernando Alonso – and Infiniti Red Bull Racing/Renault’s Daniel Kvyat experienced mechanical failures that ended their days.

The carnage continued on the opening lap. Vettel made a slow start from fourth, allowing teammate and former world champion Kimi Raikkonen of Finland to pull alongside heading into Turn 1. But as the German clipped the inside curb he was pushed across the tarmac, inadvertently forcing Raikkonen wide over the outer curb.

Raikkonen immediately came under attack from Nasr, positioned alongside Pastor Maldonado of Lotus/Mercedes. The trio pinched one-another, spinning Maldonado into the barriers and ending the Venezuelan’s race.

As Raikkonen fell to eighth, Vettel chased Massa during the race’s first half. The pair’s fight swung during the first round of stops, with Vettel pitting later and emerging ahead. Though Massa would rally back, Vettel never was challenged on his way to the podium result.

Massa, of Brazil, held onto fourth ahead of countryman Nasr. The rookie helped lift Sauber – which also scored points via Swede Marcus Ericsson’s eighth-place finish – into third overall among the constructors, behind powerhouses Mercedes and Ferrari.

While Daniel Ricciardo suffered the indignity of being lapped by the Mercedes before the finish, the Australian earned eight points for Red Bull after dropping back from challenging Nasr to finish sixth.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg held on for seventh. Teammate Sergio Perez survived a collision with former world champion Jenson Button of McLaren and a slow pit stop to take 10th, good for seven points.

Toro Rosso’s rookie wunderkinds also finished in the points. Carlos Sainz Jr. placed ninth while Max Verstappen – at 17 the youngest starter in F1 history – challenged the top six until his STR10 started smoking and retired on Lap 32. The second-generation driver from The Netherlands finished 13th.

Button, of Great Britain, was the final finisher after what amounted to a glorified test session in his MP4-30 and its detuned and problematic Honda engine, two laps behind the Mercedes Twins.

Hamilton emerged from Round 1 of the 20-race schedule with a seven-point lead (25-18) over Rosberg, with Vettel third at 18 and Massa fourth at 12.

Mercedes’ 1-2 finish gave the Silver Arrows and its W06 chassis an imposing lead in the constructors’ point race with 43, followed by Ferrari with 15 and Sauber with 14. The schedule resumes with the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend March 27-29.

FIA Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix results after 58 laps/191 miles around the 3.3-mile/16-turn Albert Park Circuit, with driver, country, chassis/engine, laps completed, and time/gap:

1. Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, 58, 1:31:54.067-seconds

2. Nico Rosberg, Germany, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, 58, plus-1.360-seconds

3. Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Scuderia Ferrari, 58, plus-34.523-seconds

4. Felipe Massa, Brazil, Williams Martini Racing/Mercedes, 58, plus-38.196-seconds

5. Felipe Nasr, Brazil, Sauber/Ferrari, 58, plus-95.149-seconds

6. Daniel Ricciardo, Australia, Infiniti Red Bull Racing/Renault, plus-1 lap

7. Nico Hulkenberg, Germany, Sahara Force India F1 Team/Mercedes, plus-1 lap

8. Marcus Ericsson, Sweden, Sauber/Ferrari, plus-1 lap

9. Carlos Sainz Jr., Spain, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Renault, plus 1-lap

10. Sergio Perez, Mexico, Sahara Force India F1 Team/Mercedes, plus-1 lap

11. Jenson Button, Great Britain, McLaren/Honda, plus-2 laps

12. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Scuderia Ferrari, 40 laps, mechanical

13. Max Verstappen, The Netherlands, Scuderia Toro Rosso/Renault, 32 laps, mechanical

14. Romain Grosjean, France, Lotus F1 Team/Mercedes, 1 lap, mechanical

15. Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela, Lotus F1 Team/Mercedes, 0 laps, mechanical

16. Danil Kvyat, Russia, Infiniti Red Bull Racing/Renault, Did Not Start

17. Kevin Magnussen, Denmark, McLaren/Honda, DNS

18. Valtteri Bottas, Finland, Williams Martini Racing/Mercedes, DNS

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 15 2015
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