MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel captured his third Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking advantage of a well-timed, mid-race safety car to take the lead and holding off his hard-charging Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton in a dramatic start to the new Formula One season.
It was the 100th podium of Vettel’s career and it came in his 200th F1 race. The German becomes the fourth driver to claim 100 podium finishes, joining Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost.
Vettel finished the race a full five seconds ahead of Hamilton, who started from pole and had made several late attempts to catch the Ferrari but couldn’t manage to pass on the narrow Albert Park circuit and fell just short of the victory.
“We’re not yet where we want to be. The feeling is good, but I think we can improve and then we should be able to race our game in qualifying and also for the race,” Vettel said.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen finished third, denying Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo a chance to become the first Australian driver to secure a podium place at the Australian GP.
A resurgent Fernando Alonso of McLaren made a bold run to finish in fifth place, holding off a spirited challenge by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was sixth.
Hamilton looked comfortable up front for the first 20 laps before deciding to pit, giving up the lead to Vettel. The race then took a dramatic turn when Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean suffered calamitous back-to-back pit stops midway through the race. Both drivers had been running strongly in fourth and fifth places, respectively, but saw their cars immediately fail after coming out of pit lane within two laps of one another.
The virtual safety car emerged as race marshals removed Grosjean’s car from the circuit and Vettel took advantage of the slowdown to pit and change tires. He came out of the pit lane just ahead of a confused Hamilton, who got on the radio to ask his team what had just happened.
“Why did you not tell me Vettel was in the pits?” Hamilton asked.
“We thought we were safe, but there’s obviously something wrong,” his team responded.
When racing resumed, Hamilton stayed close to Vettel’s Ferrari, trailing by less than a second for more than 10 laps, but was unable to find space on the tight circuit to pass the German. With victory looking increasingly out of reach, Hamilton then eased up toward the end to conserve his engine for the next race.
“Needless to say, we got a bit lucky with the timing of the safety car,” Vettel said. “It was our key to win, no doubt.”
Hamilton said after the race that he still wasn’t clear exactly what happened.
“I did everything I believed I was supposed to do,” he said. “I think just disbelief was really from that moment until the end. Just disbelief.”
Vettel’s victory comes a day after Hamilton set a blistering track record to capture pole position nearly 0.7 seconds ahead of the rest of the field, a massive margin that raised concerns among some teams that Mercedes had the speed to dominate yet another Formula One season.
But Vettel said he believed Ferrari would fare better in race conditions — and he was right.
“They didn’t do anything special, not more than they did last year,” he said of Hamilton’s speedy qualifying lap. “It was clear that he just a very good lap and he drove well.”
Ricciardo also pushed Raikkonen hard for the entire second half of the race for a chance at a podium spot, but the Ferrari driver put in a masterful drive to hold him off and maintain third.
Alonso also put several dispiriting years of technical failures with McLaren’s Honda-made engines behind him, securing his best race result since late 2016 with the team’s new Renault engines.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg finished in seventh place, just ahead of the other Mercedes driver, Valtteri Bottas, who crashed in qualifying and ended up starting in 15th place on the grid after incurring a penalty for switching out his damaged gearbox.
McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne finished in ninth place, followed by Renault’s Carlos Sainz in 10th.