MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — As a driver accustomed to challenging for grand prix wins nearly every time he takes to a Formula One track, it's unusual to hear Lewis Hamilton declare his happiness over a distant fifth placing.

But such are the new realities for Hamilton, having switched from McLaren to Mercedes, that he was enthused with Sunday's performance at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

"It's great. I'm very happy. It's way better than we could have expected on the first race of the season so it's a good place to start," Hamilton said.

"It's a big step for us. We didn't really expect to be as high as we are. The car was feeling great during the race and I was enjoying every moment."

A podium finish and perhaps even a win appeared possible when the Briton led the race for three laps in the early stages, but the impressive lap-life the Mercedes got out of the super-soft tires did not translate onto the medium compound variety.

That meant a planned two-stop strategy had to be abandoned and a switch made to three. Race winner Kimi Raikkonen, the two Ferraris and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel drove away from him in the latter half of the race, and in the end he had to fight hard to hold off Red Bull's Mark Webber.

"I don't quite know where we lost the ground to the cars ahead so we'll have a look at the race again now and figure it out," Hamilton said. "The important thing is that we have a car that we can really work with."

His teammate Nico Rosberg, who topped the timesheets in the first and second qualifying sessions, pulled out of the race on lap 27 due to an electrical failure.