MELBOURNE, Australia -- Lewis Hamilton made it look easy.
Last year's Formula One runner-up was never seriously threatened Sunday in winning an accident-filled Australian Grand Prix to open the season.
"What a dream start to the season and my championship challenge," the British driver said. "The three safety car periods meant that there was never time to relax, and the whole situation was like a bit like Canada last year when I claimed my first victory."
The McLaren driver started from the pole and stayed ahead of the mayhem to claim his fifth victory in 18 GP starts. The 23-year-old finished in 1 hour, 34 minutes and 50.616 seconds. BMW-Sauber's Nick Heidfeld was second 5.4 seconds back and Williams' Nico Rosberg was third 8.1 seconds off the pace.
Defending champion Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari ran out of gas as he entered the pits with only five laps to go. He was one of 15 cars in the 22-car field that did not complete the 58-lap race.
But Raikkonen got one championship point when stewards voided Rubens Barrichello's sixth-place finish because the Honda driver left the pits while the exit lights were red. It was Ferrari's only point, representing the Italian team's worst season-opening race since 1992.
The race ended at the first corner for four cars, with 2005 Australian GP winner Giancarlo Fisichella skidding off in the Force India team's debut.
"It was a super race which I controlled from the beginning," Hamilton said. "It was close going to the first corner, but I was able to keep it cool and look after the tires.
"From then, I paced myself and didn't overdo it -- I had plenty of time in me."
Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion who is back at Renault after a season with McLaren, moved up from 11th on the grid to finish fourth. It was the first time since 2003 that he did not finish on the podium at Melbourne.
Hamilton's McLaren teammate Heikki Kovalainen was fifth, with Barrichello crossing sixth and Williams' No. 2 Kazuki Nakajima seventh -- the only cars to finish. Nakajima was elevated to sixth place after the race.
Four-time Champ Car series winner Sebastien Bourdais was impressive throughout his F1 debut before the engine in his Toro Rosso failed with two laps to go. Even so, he was awarded a seventh-place finish, good for two championship points.
Hamilton improved on his third-place finish here last year in his F1 debut.
"We constantly had to change our strategy and the strategists were on the ball throughout -- the team has done a superb job," he said.
Hamilton, who was overtaken for the drivers title in his rookie season by Raikkonen in the last race at Brazil, gained an early advantage in what was expected to be another McLaren vs. Ferrari season.
"It is the perfect way to begin the season," he said. "We need to continue with the momentum. We could have gone quicker, so I'm not particularly bothered by the Ferrari's pace."
Raikkonen moved up from his starting place of 15th to third on the 30th lap before running into the gravel after a passing maneuver.
His wheels appeared to lock and he drove straight off the track, coming back in 11th place and heading directly for the pits.
Toyota's Timo Glock had the most spectacular crash, running wide on turn 12 in the 45th lap, getting airborne on a curb and rotating his disintegrating car into a barrier.
With no traction control or engine-assisted braking on the F1 cars for the first time since 2001, there was more onus on the skill of drivers and trouble was widely expected on the starting grid. Though it didn't occur, there was predictable trouble at Melbourne's tight first corner.
Heidfeld started in the third row of the grid and went wide to avoid trouble on the first turn.
"After the start, I didn't think it was going to be a great race," he said. "I had a lot of width -- I saw Felipe [Massa] spinning. It was all the drama I saw."
Rosberg qualified in seventh place and was impressed with his first F1 podium finish.
"I'm really, really happy," he said. "It's amazing to be on the podium in F1 -- it's been a while coming."
It was Williams' first podium finish since last year's Canadian Grand Prix, and a sixth place for teammate Nakajima had the once-dominant team in second place in the constructors' championship standings.
However, Nakajima was punished by stewards after the race for colliding with BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica under safety-car conditions, and will be moved back 10 spots on the grid from his eventual qualifying position at the Malaysian Grand Prix next week.
Hamilton was expecting a stronger challenge from Ferrari next Sunday at Sepang.
"It's still a great team ... [with] two great drivers," he said. "One bad weekend -- everyone could have a bad weekend in the season."