MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - A yawning 34 seconds might have separated third-placed Sebastian Vettel from Australian Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton on Sunday but the podium spot felt like a victory for the four-time world champion on his Ferrari debut.
German Vettel endured a horror final season with Red Bull last year, outshone by new teammate Daniel Ricciardo and plagued by reliability problems throughout a winless campaign.
Jumping ship to a shaken-up Ferrari was a leap of faith for Vettel after the Maranello team laboured to fourth in the championship, their first winless season in over 20 years.
Though buoyed by a positive winter testing, Vettel was apprehensive about what to expect on the first race weekend but was relieved when his car behaved during qualifying at Albert Park on Saturday.
Starting fourth on the grid, the German survived a chaotic start that saw him nearly hit teammate Kimi Raikkonen and after holding off Williams driver Felipe Massa for a well-earned podium spot, spoke of truly "living the dream".
"It's really an honour to sit in the red car," the 27-year-old told reporters.
"Certainly when the chequered flag came out, it was a great feeling.
"Of course, it's not a victory but for us, it feels like a victory. It's a great relief after a horrible season last year."
He was under no illusion about Ferrari's distance from reigning champions Mercedes but said it would not be "impossible" to catch the Silver Arrows.
"Well, you have to be realistic. For sure, as I said, they have a great package at the moment," the German said.
"It will be difficult to beat. Thirty-four seconds down, the road is a lot for everyone else."
Raikkonen, himself a former world champion, had a far less memorable day, his race seemingly cursed from the start.
Fifth off the grid, the Finn lost ground when hit from behind during the chaotic early exchanges and again on the side at a traffic jam at the second corner.
He then suffered two botched tyre changes, the second one forcing him to retire after his rear left wheel was not attached properly.
"Kimi was pretty decent as well in pace terms, although we are very fed up with what happened in the pitstop," Ferrari technical director James Allison said.
"But the race was OK.
"It's the first race and we've just got a podium... On any level, that's got to make you happy."