Albert Park, Melbourne
Statements of intent do not come much more emphatic than the one Jenson Button made with a dominant victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Crushingly superior in a straight fight with McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, Button got off to the perfect start in a season that promises to be very different from Sebastian Vettel’s one-sided championship win last year.
There were fears after McLaren’s one-two in qualifying that they would run away in the race – and they proved to be half right.
Button left Hamilton behind and never looked like losing the race. It was a win as comfortable as any of the six in seven races he took at the start of 2009 to lay the foundations for his championship year with the Brawn team.
Jenson Button has won three of the last four Australian grands prix. Photo: Getty
Button admitted to BBC Sport after the race not only that he always gets “nervous-excited” before grands prix, but that he was more nervous before this one than perhaps any other.
One assumes it was founded in the knowledge that after starting his first two seasons at McLaren with cars that were off the pace of the Red Bull, he now had a real chance of getting his year off to the best possible start.
Contrary to appearances, that nervousness led to a slight error at the start. After a superb initial getaway, Button went for second gear too early, which delayed his charge to the first corner.
Luckily for Button, Hamilton had also had a bad start, and with the inside line, the corner – and, as it turned out, the victory – were his.
Ironically, the win bore more than a slight resemblance to many of Vettel’s in 2011.
Button went off like a frightened rabbit in the first two laps, the aim being to be far enough ahead at the start of lap three – when the drivers are first allowed to use the DRS overtaking aid – to ensure he was out of reach of his pursuers.
Rather than ease off, though, Button just kept going, a succession of fastest laps moving him more than three seconds clear within six laps, after which it stabilised.
So dominant was Button that even had Hamilton converted his lead at the start into one at the end of the first lap, it is difficult to imagine that the result would have been any different.
Hamilton cut a subdued figure after the race, giving short, quietly-spoken answers to questions. He admitted he “didn’t generally have great pace” and, after producing a stunning lap in qualifying to take pole, was clearly not expecting Button’s demoralising
Hamilton’s mood will not have been helped by losing out on second place to Vettel, largely through bad luck.
After leaving the two cars out slightly too long before their first pit stops, McLaren did exactly the right thing in stopping them one after the other for their second.
It was Hamilton’s bad luck that he was delayed by the introduction of the safety car on the very next lap, allowing Vettel to sneak ahead.
Vettel said after the race that he would have “had a crack” at Hamilton even without that stroke of good fortune.
But the two cars were evenly matched and if Hamilton, whose car was faster on the straight, was not able to pass Vettel it seems unlikely that Vettel would have been able to overtake the McLaren.
The manner of Button’s victory – Vettel described him as “unbeatable” – led to inevitable questions about whether McLaren will now dominate this season in the way Red Bull did last.
But as Hamilton said, it is “too early to tell” if McLaren are comfortably ahead of Red Bull.
“In qualifying we’re quite quick and competitive,” he said, “but they were massively quick in the race. I think they’re still a force to be reckoned with.”
Vettel, meanwhile, proved once again how ridiculous it ever was to suggest he could not race – his move around the outside of Nico Rosberg at Turn Nine on lap two was hugely impressive.
Behind the top two teams, an intriguing race has set the season up nicely.
Romain Grosjean made some errors befitting his semi-novice status as he squandered his excellent third place on the grid, but his Lotus team look like they could have the pace to challenge close to the front if they have a clean weekend.
Mercedes’ race pace was a disappointment after their impressive form in qualifying – which extreme was the true representation of their competitive position remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso dragged his Ferrari up to fifth place with a typically resilient and impressive performance, although the car’s lap times once the race settled down suggested the team still have a lot of work to do.
The mixed-up grid, caused by typical early seasons problems for Red Bull, Alonso and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying, led to some superb battles throughout a race that seemed to confirm the impression of pre-season testing that the grid has closed up this year.
“We all think this is a special year in F1 with six world champions and so many competitive teams,” Button said. “F1 is in a special place and it’s a great sport to be a part of.”
Malaysia next weekend will provide further evidence of what lies ahead. Button and Hamilton, for very different reasons, will be anxious to get on with it.