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Button, McLaren hyped after F1 start

MELBOURNE, Australia — McLaren driver Jenson Button won the Formula One season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking the checkered flag Down Under for the third time in four years.

Button beat reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull by 2.1 seconds after the race turned into a 17-lap shootout after Vitaly Petrov stopped on the main straight, bringing out the safety car.

Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton of McLaren was third, just ahead of Mark Webber of Red Bull.

With a strong performance, McLaren showed it had closed the gap on the Red Bull team that dominated 2011.

"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."

Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fifth, with Williams' Pastor Maldonado crashing hard into a wall on the final lap while on the tail of the Spaniard.

Button got off the line better than Hamilton and immediately took the lead, which eventually grew to 11.8 seconds on Lap 23 of 58. That lead was negated when Petrov stopped.

Button mastered the restart, opening a 3.5-second lead on Vettel after one lap.

"He was too quick; two corners and he was gone," Vettel said.

Mercedes' Michael Schu­macher was third for the first nine laps but ran wide over the grass at Turn 1 under pressure from Vettel, and soon after retired with a gear problem.

Audi owns Sebring: Though the Audi R18 team of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello finished four laps clear of the second-place car at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the victory in the American Le Mans Series' season opener was not guaranteed until late Saturday.

The winners gained control in the second half of the race as gearbox problems beset the pole-winning No. 1 Audi and the second-place R18 of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Loic Duval made contact with a slower car in the last hour.

"It looks easy if you watch the gap in the last 30 minutes," said Capello, whose team completed 325 laps on the 3.74-mile Sebring International Raceway. "But until they got the problem, it was not easy."

Audi won the P1 class for the first time since 2009 and swept the first two spots for the first time since 2005.

EAST BAY RACEWAY: Bobby Dixon outdueled Buzzie Reutimann to win the Open Wheel Modifieds late Saturday. Scotty Williams won the Limited Late Models.

. fast facts

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener, plus races in other series, including Indy Lights and Star Mazda

When/where: Friday-Sunday, downtown streets

Defending champion: Dario Franchitti

IndyCar schedule: Friday, practices 11:50 a.m. and 2:50 p.m.; Saturday, practice 9:55 a.m., qualifying 1:55 p.m.; Sunday, race 12:30 p.m.

Tickets: Prices range from $20 for ages 12 and under for Friday and Saturday to $125 for a three-day adult upper-reserved seat. Paddock passes and convenience charges extra. Details or to buy: gpstpete

.com; (727) 898-4639, extension 225.

Button, McLaren hyped after F1 start 03/18/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 12:54am]

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