MELBOURNE, March 18, 2012 (AFP) - McLaren's Jenson Button won the Australian Grand Prix in a thrilling start to the season Sunday as he held off two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel in second place.
The 32-year-old Englishman started second on the grid but took advantage of a slow getaway by his pole-sitting team-mate Lewis Hamilton to take the lead at the first corner, and then controlled the race all the way to the flag.
Hamilton, struggling for the pace he exhibited as he flew to pole on Saturday, finished third behind Red Bull's defending double world champion Sebastian Vettel, who climbed from sixth on the grid.
Vettel's recovery -- aided by a timely safety car intervention -- shows that he and his team are not to be taken lightly, and will be locked into what looks like a close championship battle with McLaren.
"That was beautiful, just a perfect start and it shows how good a winter can be," said Button. "A great start to the year for me and the team."
It was the 2009 world champion's third win in four years at the Australian Grand Prix, and the 13th of his career.
Local hero Australian Mark Webber came home fourth to deliver his best finish at his home race in the second Red Bull.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fifth after a forceful race from 12th on the grid, following a disappointing qualifying performance on Saturday, ahead of Japanese Kamui Kobayahsi of Sauber.
The 2007 champion Finn Kimi Raikkonen, who started 18th on the grid, came home seventh for Lotus in his first race after a two-year absence in rallying, and Mexican Sergio Perez was eighth for Sauber.
Australia's second entrant Daniel Ricciardo finished in the points on his debut with the Toro Rosso team by taking ninth position in a dramatic finish ahead of Briton Paul Di Resta, 10th for the Force India team.
Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher of Germany was an early retirement in his Mercedes.
Button said his confidence was boosted as soon as he arrived in Melbourne to check into his hotel.
"I found I was staying in the same room as the last two times I won here (in 2009 and 2010) so that was a good omen I think," he said, as Hamilton quipped: "Maybe you'll have a different one next year."
"Every win means a lot," added Button. "As a team, the win shows how important the winter (testing) is.
"We've had a strong winter and yesterday we showed that in qualifying. It's nice to come away with victory in the first race of the new season. The guys have done an amazing job this winter. This win will definitely
help them push hard in the extra hours in the morning and I thank them for that, doing that work for the extra parts that are so vital."
Vettel said he believed he had a good chance to attack the McLarens in the race and would have pushed to pass Hamilton even without the help of a safety car, after 38 laps when Russian Vitaly Petrov pulled up and parked his Caterham on the straight.
Vettel said: "I decided to stay out when Lewis went into the pits and I think we would have had a crack without the safety car. Maybe it helped us a little bit to get past Lewis.
"We had a great stop. I thought I would be in a good position to have a go at Jenson but two corners and he was gone. It wasn't very easy to get away from Lewis but Jenson was out of sight. He deserved to win today."
A dejected Hamilton said: "Firstly congratulations to Jenson -- he did a great job. And to the team for doing great job. It was a bit of a tough day for me, but we've got a lot of races ahead of us.
"I was in a very similar to position to what I was last year. It was a tough race, but still positive for the team, so hopefully we can take that on for the next race."