VICTORY in the opening round of the F1 season sent out an ominous message to the chasing pack - Sebastian Vettel is the man to beat in 2011.
The world champion set about defending his title in stunning fashion, dominating around the streets of Melbourne in his Red Bull car and winning his third race in a row.
In his flag-to-flag victory, the 23-year-old comfortably romped to victory in Austrlalia ahead of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, while team-mate Mark Webber lagged behind in fifth place at his home Grand Prix.
Vettel went into the weekend as heavy favourite and threw down the gauntlet in Saturday’s qualifying session, setting a time nearly a second faster than his nearest rival to secure pole position.
Webber, meanwhile, set the fastest time in the first free practise session, but could only qualify in third behind Hamilton as he struggled to make the new Pirelli tyres work in his favour.
At the start, Vettel flew off the line while Webber pulled alongside Hamilton as they approached the first turn, but the Brit held his nerve up the inside to keep second place, with the Australian settling for third.
Vettel opened up a two second lead on the first lap and never looked back as Webber fell first behind Vitaly Petrov and then Fernando Alonso on his way to a fifth place finish.
Vettel’s trouble-free race and frightening pace will have sent up the warning flags for his title rivals, while Red Bull will be delighted that a car without the much maligned KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovers System) could still dominate a race weekend.
Vettel said: “It was a good race - towards the end things calmed down a bit and Lewis didn’t push as hard, so we tried to control the last part of the race.
“The start was crucial and being on the clean side I had a very good getaway. I didn’t know if it was enough, but then I saw Lewis and Mark battling for position.
“I got a cushion on lap one and we tried to hold the gap for the first stint. When the tyres went off, Lewis caught up and we came in. I think it was the right time, as I couldn’t have done more laps.
“In the second part of the race I didn’t know what was gong on behind Lewis, if he was under pressure or not, but towards the end of the race I could control it more.
“We learned a lot of things today. It’s good coming here after a long winter and setting the pace.”
Webber’s race, his best performance on home soil since his debut back in 2002 for the hopeless Minardi team, was somewhat more of a mystery to the driver, who could not understand how his team-mate was so much faster with the same machinery.
“I wasn’t quick in the race and it was the same in qualifying so we need to understand the reason why,” said Webber.
“I was in a different race to Sebastian, so we had to do different things. I was in trouble with the tyres much sooner than he was, so we need to have a look why.
“I lost the last position to Alonso during the pit stops and that was it really. It was very frustrating. Seb drove a good race, in terms of what the car can do, but it’s not normal for me not to go and match the rhythm at the front.
“I should be able to stay with these guys, but I finished a long way behind. It was a tough race and I was pushing as hard as I could, but I wasn’t getting much back.
“To finish that far behind is not usual, but let’s stay cool. It’s the first race. I’m looking forward to going to Malaysia, I wish the race was tomorrow already.”
Team boss Christian Horner was delighted to get Red Bull’s constructors’ championship defence off to a great start, praising Vettel for his faultless race.
“It was a fantastic performance,” Horner said. “He’s been dominant all weekend and to turn up and win the first race with a faultless drive was fantastic.
“Unfortunately things didn’t work out for Mark at his home grand prix and we need to understand why.
“We took a slightly different strategic route with him running the harder tyre second, as his degradation seemed to be higher than Sebastian’s. That’s something we’ll need to look into on Mark’s car, as it was an unusual difference between them this weekend that we don’t normally see. I’m sure that will be back to normal for Malaysia.”
The next round in Kuala Lumpur in two weeks was the scene of Red Bull’s first race victory of the successful 2010 campaign, with Vettel leading the way in a 1-2 victory.
The team from Tilbrook have confirmed that they will install KERS on their car for the Malaysian GP as they look to extend their lead at the top of the standings.