MELBOURNE, March 26 (Reuters) – Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari on Sunday to dash Mercedes’ hopes of extending their dominance into a fourth successive season of Formula One.
The German cruised to his 43rd race victory with a 9.9 second gap to Mercedes’ runner-up Lewis Hamilton, with the Briton’s new team mate, Valtteri Bottas, finishing third.
It was Vettel’s fourth win for Ferrari and his first since the Singapore Grand Prix in September 2015.
That win in Singapore was also the last time Ferrari had topped the podium but Vettel’s victory at Albert Park underlined the huge leap in performance made by the team, who were encouraged by their cars’ pace and reliability in winter testing.
“It’s a long, long way ahead but for now we’re just over the moon … It was a great race, I enjoyed it,” Vettel said in a podium interview with former Red Bull team mate Mark Webber.
Vettel’s 2007 championship-winning team mate Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen one behind.
Vettel, who started alongside pole-sitter Hamilton, had said after qualifying he hoped for a good start to reel in Mercedes.
Hamilton got away smoothly and having broke clear of Vettel, was first to pit on lap 18 to change tyres.
However, it proved a turning point in the race as he rejoined behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and was then unable to pass the feisty Dutch teenager, Hamilton venting on the team radio as Vettel forged ahead.
The German pitted at lap 23 and exited the pit-lane just in front of Verstappen, who was still gamely holding off Hamilton.
Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff was enraged, with television pictures showing him pounding his fist into a desk in the team garage.
Vettel showed the reigning constructors’ champions a clean set of heels and quickly established a six-second gap, which widened as the race went on.
It was a tough day for Red Bull’s home racer Daniel Ricciardo, who started off with a five-grid penalty for a gearbox change and then had to retire with smoke billowing from his car on turn three midway through the race.
In between, his car came to a stop on the way to lining up at the starting grid and he was forced to join the race from pit-lane two laps behind after frantic work in the garage to fix a sensor problem with his gearbox.
Six other cars failed to finish, including McLaren’s twice champion Fernando Alonso and Renault’s Jolyon Palmer.