By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A podium appearance by Hollywood strong-man Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed a suitable conclusion for a farcical Sunday at the Australian Grand Prix, where only 11 cars finished and Mercedes' dominance was almost embarrassing for the team's drivers.
World champion Lewis Hamilton may have finished only 1.3 seconds ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg in winning Formula One's season-opener but the pole-sitting Briton crossed the line an astonishing 34 seconds clear of third-placed Sebastian Vettel.
As if to compensate for the lack of a contest on a sunny day at Albert Park, film actor and former California governor Schwarzenegger was drafted in for the podium ceremony, where he conducted some amusing, if slightly awkward, interviews.
The awkwardness was to continue in the post-race media conference where Hamilton and the equally diplomatic Rosberg were at pains to deny the Formula One season was not just a two-horse race.
"I think the Ferraris have taken a huge step forward and have made one of the biggest steps," Hamilton said generously as Ferrari debutant Vettel, sitting on his left, wore a wry smile.
"I anticipate we might have a good fight with them at some stage this year."
Rosberg, runner-up in the championship last year, was a bit franker when he said Mercedes would "be leading the way for sure" for the first couple of races.
"But it would be good if they can come a bit closer... as long as they don't get too close," the German said.
His comments drew a snort from Vettel, a four-times world champion with Red Bull, who had plenty of experience defending the dominance of his former team.
"Be honest, do you really hope so?" he interjected, raising roars of laughter. "Seriously? You finish 34 seconds ahead of us and you hope it's going to be closer? You hope you'll slow down?"
Hamilton and Rosberg commandeered 16 out of 19 race wins in last year's championship and 18 out of 19 poles.
The duo dominated qualifying again in Australia with the Briton lapping nearly 1.5 seconds quicker than Felipe Massa's Williams in third place, times that suggest the Silver Arrows have actually widened the gap to their rivals and raised immediate fears the season will be a foregone conclusion.
Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff said his team had met all their targets, or almost achieved them.
"The pace of the car is incredible and then to have a faultless weekend with both drivers immaculate in the car without any problems. This is the result you can achieve," he said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)