Sebastian Vettel took advantage of a mid-race safety car to steal victory from Lewis Hamilton in the 2018 Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver was third in the opening stint but ran longer than his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and early leader Hamilton and benefited hugely from a caution period just before he was due to pit.
Hamilton kept the lead at the start and rebuffed an attack from Raikkonen at Turn 3 before settling into a comfortable lead that stood at more than 3sec, as Vettel kept a watching brief in the second Ferrari. Kevin Magnussen's move around the outside of Turn 1 to jump Max Verstappen gave the front three a chance to break clear, and the race was descending into a procession as the first stint developed.
Verstappen's Red Bull looked erratic behind the Haas and he complained of overheating rears, which manifested itself in dramatic fashion with a spin at Turn 1 that dropped Verstappen to eighth. The only other movement before the pit stops was Carlos Sainz Jr running wide at Turn 9 in his Renault and allowing Fernando Alonso's McLaren into ninth, but the race was turned on its head by the two Haas pit stops.
Magnussen pulled up at Turn 3 after his left rear wheel was not correctly fitted, and team-mate Romain Grosjean suffered a similar fate just a lap later, when a problem on his front left led to the Frenchman pulling over on the left-hand side on the exit of Turn 1, immediately.
That triggered a virtual safety car, which was a blessing to Ferrari as it had used its two-against-one advantage over Mercedes to good effect, bringing in Raikkonen early so Hamilton had to stop one lap later to protect against the Ferrari's fresh-tyre advantage. Vettel stayed out several laps longer and with the virtual safety car deployed, he was able to pit while the rest circulated slowly and then emerged just ahead of Hamilton, turning a nine-second deficit into the race lead.
A real safety car soon replaced its virtual equivalent and the race remained neutralised until lap 32, giving Hamilton 26 laps to overhaul Vettel. Hamilton stayed around a second behind Vettel for a lot of that time, then started a serious push with a dozen laps remaining but locked up at the Turn 9 right-hander and skated over the grass. That dropped him back to almost three seconds behind and though he briefly got back within DRS range with five laps to go, he complained of overheating rears and slipped back again.
Raikkonen kept a charging Daniel Ricciardo at bay to finish third, while Alonso – the other big winner from the mid-race safety car – claimed fifth despite immense pressure from Verstappen.
Nico Hulkenberg had a quiet run to seventh place for Renault, chasing Alonso and Verstappen later on. Valtteri Bottas's unspectacular recovery from 15th was boosted by the safety car and he took eighth from another beneficiary, Stoffel Vandoorne, with a nice move at Turn 3 on the restart. He then closed on Hulkenberg but was unable to pass and ended up back under pressure from Vandoorne.
The final point of the season opener went to Carlos Sainz Jr in the second Renault, who held off Sergio Perez's Force India despite claiming he was suffering from nausea in the final third of the race.
As well as the race-changing Haas failures, three other teams lost a car over the course of the opening Grand Prix.
Williams rookie Sergey Sirotkin was the first retirement of the season after suffering a brake problem on lap six, while Marcus Ericsson brought his power steering-less Sauber into the pits on lap 14 and Pierre Gasly failed to finish after a Honda engine problem in his Toro Rosso.