Melbourne, Australia (AP) — Sebastian Vettel jumped onto the podium at the Australian Grand Prix and held up his right index finger, celebrating the end of Ferrari’s Formula One drought and a break in the Mercedes dominance.
It was back to No. 1 for Ferrari, at least after one race to open the season.
Ferrari hadn’t won an F1 GP since Vettel’s victory in Singapore in September 2015, and so his unrestrained joy on Sunday signaled renewed confidence from him.
“For now, we’re just over the moon,” four-time world champion Vettel said after holding off Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. “It’s been a great day for us. The team has been working so hard at the track as much as back at the factory. It’s a great feeling.”
“Grazie mille,” he added, a nod to the Italian manufacturer, “you can’t say much more.”
With regulations designed to make the 2017 F1 cars faster — wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce — Vettel proved Ferrari’s extra pace in pre-season testing was genuine.
“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning … with new regulations, a new generation of cars,” Vettel said. “Mercedes have a great engine and a great car the last couple of years — we’re the ones who’ve had to catch up. Whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”
Vettel finished in 1 hour, 24 minutes and 11.672 seconds, almost 10 seconds clear of Hamilton, to give Ferrari its first win in Australia since Kimi Raikkonen took the title in 2007. Raikkonen, in the second Ferrari, finished fourth this year.
For the second year running, Hamilton started on pole position at the Albert Park circuit and placed second. Last year, he lost to then Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who went on to edge him for the world championship before retiring. This time, Vettel took the lead when Hamilton pitted for new tires on lap 18 and then got stuck in traffic behind Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.
Vettel was able to pit much later and gradually build up his lead as Hamilton drove conservatively on older tires to ensure he finished the race.
“That’s motor racing,” Hamilton said of the hold-up, adding it was his decision to pit and change tires. “A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari.
“This shows we’ve got a real race on our hands this season and it’s a challenge we will relish. It’s going to be great for the fans.”
Mercedes won 19 of the 21 GPs last season, and Red Bull won the other two. But Red Bull was well off the pace in Melbourne, with Verstappen placing fifth — almost 29 seconds behind Vettel — and local hope Daniel Ricciardo failing to finish.
In fact, the Australian driver almost didn’t start. Ricciardo’s day started badly and kept getting worse as he got a grid penalty, missed the start after a mechanical failure in the warmup, and then retired after 28 laps.
He was among seven drivers who retired during the race. Former champion Fernando Alonso continued to struggle in his McLaren, retiring on the 50th of 57 laps, while 18-year-old Canadian rookie Lance Stroll was handed a grid penalty after needing an unscheduled gearbox change after a crash in practice and was wayward in his 40 laps on debut for Williams.
Felipe Massa earned points for Williams with a sixth-place finish, while Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were 7th and 10th in their pink cars and finished either side of Toro Rosso drivers Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat.
Antonio Giovinazzi placed 12th on his F1 debut for Sauber, a late replacement after Pascal Wehrlein withdrew following the opening practice sessions on Friday.
“I want to thank Sauber and Scuderia Ferrari for this opportunity,” Giovinazzi said. “It was an amazing race weekend for me.”
Ferrari leads the constructors’ standings by four points from Mercedes, with Formula One moving to Shanghai next month for the Chinese Grand Prix.
“Overall, I think not a disaster, first race weekend with the team,” said Bottas, who joined Mercedes for 2017 as a replacement for Rosberg. “It’s good to start with a podium this season and with a new team. Every position is important for the championship itself.”
Hamilton set the lap record with his qualifying run to take pole on Saturday, and there were expectations that the cars would go faster Sunday. But Michael Schumacher’s racing lap record from 2004 stood up, with Hamilton predicting the 2017 cars would go faster as the year progressed.