JENSON BUTTON kicked off the new Grand Prix campaign in style with a memorable victory in the curtain-raiser in Melbourne.
The McLaren star led from start to finish to win by 2.1 seconds from reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel after the race was turned into a 17-lap shootout following the late arrival of the safety car.
Button’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton was third, after starting on pole, just ahead of Mark Webber.
The result proves that Woking-based McLaren have at last closed the gap on Red Bull, who dominated the 2011 season.
Button said: “Every victory means a lot – but today shows just how important it was to have a strong winter. The starts of the past two seasons have both been tricky for us, so today is really encouraging. The guys at the circuit and all the men and women back in Woking have done an amazing job to get us here.
“Today means a lot to me, and I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to all of them too. It’ll make those extra hours worked in the early hours of the morning all the more worthwhile, because we know we can do great things with this car.
“At the start, I really wanted to get away fast in the first two laps to avoid the threat of DRS – it wasn’t easy because I had Lewis right on my tail. But the race went smoothly after that. My biggest worry was the late-race safety car. I had a 10-second advantage, which was pretty healthy, but the safety car cut that to nothing.
We’ve got a great car and we can fight for the world championship. This is a perfect start to my season and I’m already looking forward to Malaysia“And, since it was 6pm, with the sun going down, it was quite difficult to keep temperature in the tyres when we were running slowly behind the safety car. That was a big worry for me, but it worked out OK in the end. I got clear of Seb and the DRS zone pretty quickly and was able to pull out an advantage and hold it to the end.
“There’s a huge amount of positives to take away from this weekend. We’ve got a great car and we can fight for the world championship. This is a perfect start to my season and I’m already looking forward to Malaysia.”
Hamilton said: “Congratulations to Jenson and the whole team for such a great result today.
“While it’s a bit disappointing not to have been able to convert pole position into victory, I’m not downhearted – there are still plenty of races ahead and lots more opportunities to score points.
“I struggled out there a little – it wasn’t my day. But what’s most important is that we showed today that we have a very quick racing car – that’s a massive positive for the team.
“I’m not sure what happened at the start, but I lost ground and then suffered from tyre degradation at the end of the first stint. Then, at the end of the race, I wasn’t able to close the gap to Seb – he was very quick on the straights which meant that it was always going to be difficult to pass him – so I dropped back into some clear air, then Mark put me under pressure.
“I’ll just re-focus now, get my head down and look to the next race. The world championships are all about consistency, so that’s what I’ll be aiming for.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “Jenson was utterly immaculate today.
“He made a brilliant start, slipping past Lewis who got bogged down momentarily, and after that he controlled the race with consummate authority.
“Lewis, too, drove extremely well, but was unfortunately deprived of second place when the Safety Car was deployed late in the race. A Vodafone McLaren Mercedes one-two had been there for the taking but I guess it’s a very good sign when you feel a little disappointed by a one-three, so we’ll settle for that!
“We never under-estimate our opposition, and undoubtedly there’s a long hard road ahead of us between now and the end of the season. But we’ve started well, and in a few days’ time we’ll roll into Sepang, Malaysia, hungry to score a repeat victory.