Nico Rosberg won the Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix from reigning champion Lewis Hamilton in one of the most dramatic races of recent times.

Hamilton qualified on pole under the new knockout-style qualifying format, which was deemed a failure and dropped immediately. Rosberg lined up alongside with the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen behind.

With fewer driver aids at his disposal than he’s used to, Hamilton made a stuttering start and was swamped by Rosberg and Vettel, who swept into the lead at the first corner. By the end of the first lap Hamilton was all the way down in sixth, after Rosberg pushed him wide. Felipe Massa’s Williams was soon dispatched, but the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen proved a more stubborn target.

A race of tyre strategy developed as Mercedes waited for the super-soft shod Ferraris to pit. But the whole proceeding was turned on its head by a massive crash on lap 17 involving Esteban Gutierrez and Fernando Alonso.

Running into the braking zone for Turn 3, McLaren ace Alonso tagged the left-rear of Gutierrez’s Haas, speared into the outside wall then caught the gravel trap side-on which sent the McLaren into a terrifying, high-flying roll. Coming to rest upside-down against the tyre barrier, Alonso was able to quickly extract himself from the wreckage, winded but otherwise fine. He later admitted he was lucky to be alive.

The crash brought out the red flag and the cars returned to the pits, many taking the opportunity to change tyres, effectively getting a free pit stop. Vettel led as the race restarted behind the safety car, but was unable to pull out a big enough lead to prevent Rosberg taking the lead when he pitted.

 

Hamilton worked his way through the order as Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and the two Toro Rosso made their stops, and Raikkonen retired from third with flames licking from the Ferrari’s airbox.

With 16 laps left, it was Mercedes one-two. Rosberg held onto the lead despite brake and tyre issues, while a small mistake by Hamilton allowed Vettel the chance to snatch second. He threw the chance away, though, when he locked up and ran onto the grass with two laps to go.

When the chequered flag flew Rosberg sealed the win by eight seconds, the 15th of F1 career and fourth in succession after a run of three victories at the end of last season.

Ricciardo was best of the rest in fourth, while Massa put in a solid performance to finish fifth. Romain Grosjean exceeded all expectations by crossing the line sixth for new team Haas, the first American team to score points in nearly 40 years and the first team to score on its debut since Toyota in 2002.

Nico Hulkenberg was seventh for Force India, ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the second Williams. Carlos Sainz Jr. and Verstappen filled out the rest of the top ten.

Neither of the Renaults scored on the French team’s return to F1, rookie Jolyon Palmer finishing 11th ahead of Kevin Magnussen in 12th. Likewise, the remaining McLaren-Honda of Jenson Button languished in 14th.

It’s tough to tell who would have triumphed in a straight fight between Rosberg and Hamilton. Most commentators agree, though, that Ferrari easily had the pace to win if their strategy had been better. We can’t read too much into the first race of a monster 21-round season, but it’s certainly shaping up nicely.

The next race is in Bahrain on 3 April.

Australian Grand Prix results after 57 laps

  1. Nico Rosberg — Mercedes — 2:48:15.565
  2. Lewis Hamilton — Mercedes — +8.060
  3. Sebastian Vettel — Ferrari — +9.643
  4. Daniel Ricciardo — Red Bull-TAG Heuer — +24.330
  5. Felipe Massa — Williams-Mercedes — +58.979
  6. Romain Grosjean — Haas-Ferrari — +1:12.081
  7. Nico Hulkenberg — Force India-Mercedes — +1:14.199
  8. Valtteri Bottas — Williams-Mercedes — +1:15.153
  9. Carlos Sainz Jr. — Toro Rosso-Ferrari — +1:15.680
  10. Max Verstappen — Toro Rosso-Ferrari — +1:16.833
  11. Jolyon Palmer — Renault — +1:23.399
  12. Kevin Magnussen — Renault — +1:25.606
  13. Sergio Perez — Force India-Mercedes — +1:31.699
  14. Jenson Button — McLaren-Honda — +1 lap
  15. Felipe Nasr — Sauber-Ferrari — +1 lap
  16. Pascal Wehrlein — MRT-Mercedes — +1 lap
  17. Marcus Ericsson — Sauber-Ferrari — DNF (driveshaft)
  18. Kimi Raikkonen — Ferrari — DNF (power unit)
  19. Rio Haryanto — MRT-Mercedes — DNF (driveshaft)
  20. Esteban Gutierrez — Haas-Ferrari — DNF (crash)
  21. Fernando Alonso — McLaren-Honda — DNF (crash)
  22. Daniil Kvyat — Red Bull-TAG Heuer — DNS (electrics)

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By Only Motors