Lewis Hamilton held off team-mate Nico Rosberg to give Mercedes a dominant victory as the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was hit by a series of withdrawals today.

Reigning world champion Hamilton led from the start to the chequered flag, beating last year’s winner Rosberg by 1.3 seconds, with Sebastien Vettel third in his Ferrari debut.

Only 11 cars finished the race after mechanical problems and an injury to Valtteri Bottas left just 15 on the starting grid — the lowest number for a year-opener since 1963.

And Max Verstappen’s record-breaking debut at the age of 17 years and 166 days ended on a sour note when his Toro Rosso suffered a power unit failure on the 34th lap.

At the front, Mercedes were in ominous form with Hamilton finishing a whopping 34 seconds in front of Vettel, indicating a tough year ahead for the Silver Arrows’ rivals.

It was Mercedes’ eighth straight victory, dating back to Belgium last August, and their 20th race in a row with at least one driver on the podium.

Hamilton, 30, has now won seven of the last eight races and 34 from 149 grands prix, although this was his first in Australia since 2008.

"Nico was quick throughout the race," he said of his fierce rival. "In terms of tyres we did not know how far they could go. When Nico turned up the heat I was able to react which was good."

Rosberg, who will have much to ponder after pole-sitter Hamilton’s supreme opening week, insisted it was a "nice feeling to be second".

"Lewis has done a fantastic job, he drove like a world champion all weekend. I’ll give my maximum and try to beat him all year," he said.

Four-time world champion Vettel yelled "Forza Ferrari!" as he celebrated a morale-boosting podium finish on his debut for the team after switching from Red Bull.

Ferrari finished only fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship and Vettel, who beat Williams’ Felipe Massa to take third place, was all smiles as he collected his trophy.

"We can be very proud. We have a great car, there is a lot of work ahead of us to beat these (Mercedes) guys," Vettel said. "We want to make sure that life is not easy for these two during the season."