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McLaren driver Jenson Button won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking the checkered flag at Albert Park for the third time in four years and signalling a tight season ahead.
Button won by 2.1 seconds from reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, with the race turned into a 17-lap shootout following the late emergence of the safety car.
Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton of McLaren was third, just ahead of local hope Mark Webber of Red Bull.
The result indicated that McLaren has closed the gap on the Red Bull team which dominated 2011, and set the stage for a more competitive season. The top 12 finishers were separated by less than a minute, bearing out preseason predictions of a hard-fought campaign in 2012.
"It was an amazing day," Button said.
"Starting the year strong for this team is really important. The past two years for us have been tricky for us coming into the first race. It points us in a great position for the next few races and on the right foot."
Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fifth, with Williams' Pastor Maldonado crashing heavily into a wall on the final lap while on the tail of the Spaniard.
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi inherited sixth from Maldonado, and teammate Sergio Perez was eighth after starting 22nd and last on the grid. They were separated by Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen.
Toro Rosso's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo took ninth place to claim points in his first home race, overtaking his teammate Jean-Eric Vergne on the final sequence of corners. Vergne was shuffled down to 11th, with Force India's Paul di Resta snatching the last points-paying position in 10th.
Button got off the line better than Hamilton and immediately took the lead, extending the gap on his teammate to a maximum of 11.8 seconds on lap 23 of 58. However that buffer was negated when the Caterham of Vitaly Petrov stopped on the main straight and brought out the safety car.
"The biggest problem was the safety car. As soon as the safety car comes out and its six o'clock in the evening, it’s difficult to keep temperature in the tyres.
"I was a little on edge but I was able to keep the heat in the tyres."
Button mastered the restart, opening a 3.5-second lead on Vettel after just one lap and comfortably holding on for victory.
Vettel leapfrogged Hamilton thanks to a clever piece of Red Bull strategy, holding off on a pit stop as Hamilton went in, thereby taking over second place behind the safety car. The German was tacked onto the back of Button, and it appeared he could pull off a victory that had seemed McLaren's for the taking.
"I thought I would be in a good position to have a shot at Jenson but I didn't. He was too quick -- two corners and he was gone," Vettel said.
"There was no way we could have stayed with him -- he completely deserved to win today."
A downcast Hamilton saw little to be enthused about in third position.
"It was a bit of a tough day, but there's plenty more races to do so I just have to keep my head up," Hamilton said.
"It was still a positive to come here with good pace and hopefully we can take that on to the next race."
Lotus' Romain Grosjean started a surprise third on the grid, but was shuffled back quickly after a poor start and by lap three he was gone after breaking his right front axle bumping wheels with Maldonado.
Mercedes' Michael Schumacher held third place for the opening nine laps, but ran wide over the grass at turn one under pressure from Vettel and soon after retired with a gear problem.
"We've never had an issue with the gearbox all winter long, so it's a bit strange," Schumacher said. "But they're prototype cars, you can never have total reliability."