F1’s return to Melbourne brought drama for Red Bull and an easy path to victory for the Prancing Horse.
These are still early days in the 2022 Formula 1 world championship, but after three rounds, Charles Leclerc and Ferrari hold a commanding lead in the wake of the first Australian Grand Prix since 2019.
Leclerc was utterly dominant at the revised Albert Park track on Sunday, only briefly allowing Max Verstappen a sniff of hope from a slightly botched restart following a safety car interlude.
It was the only blemish in a superb performance, with Ferrari joy compounded by the world champion’s second retirement in three races. There are still 20 left, so no one in Maranello should be getting too ahead of themselves. But the start of this new era, following F1’s major chassis regulation changes, couldn’t have been much brighter for the Prancing Horse in the wake of two frustrating years of mediocrity.
Red Bull’s new-found reliability concerns are a worry for Verstappen and everyone at the Milton Keynes-based team. Exactly what caused Verstappen to pull off at two-thirds distance wasn’t precisely clear in the immediate aftermath, but the Red Bull looked a sorry state covered in fire extinguishant from cautious marshals.
Verstappen’s withering verdict was all too predictable and understandable, especially in the wake of his DNF in the Bahrain season opener. He suddenly finds himself a gaping 46 points behind Leclerc in what should still develop into a two-horse race for this year’s title.
Leclerc’s small error from the second safety car restart, caused by Sebastian Vettel’s clumsy crash in his Aston Martin, did briefly make him vulnerable to attack from Verstappen. He was fortunate the Dutchman couldn’t use his DRS from the restart, allowing Leclerc to parry Max’s advances.
Other than that, Verstappen knew he was well beaten in Australia, even before his Red Bull let him down. That’s another worry, although form looks set to swing from circuit to circuit this year. Red Bull will be fired up to hit back on Ferrari’s home ground next time out at Imola on 24 April – and after this blow, it really needs to.
Lucky break for George Russell
The lack of Mercedes-AMG pace continued in Australia, with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finding themselves powerless once again to take the fight to Ferrari and Red Bull.
Hamilton made a great start from fifth on the grid to run third but had no way of fending off Sergio Perez in the Red Bull. He actually jumped the Mexican at the pitstops, only for ‘Checo’ to pass him comfortably and on the outside. That must have been dispiriting.
What made it worse was the latest in a series of unlucky safety car breaks for the seven-time champion. Vettel dropping his Aston couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hamilton because it allowed team-mate George Russell to make his pitstop and jump the other Silver Arrows in the order. That made the difference for the final podium position, Russell taking it ahead of a disgruntled Hamilton. The result leaves Russell a surprise second in the points behind Leclerc, even if it’s not representative of form for the bouncing Mercedes cars.
Bad day for Sainz, Vettel and Alonso
Carlos Sainz Jr qualified only ninth and then spun out on lap two – never great, especially when your team-mate is winning; Vettel looked completely out of sorts during his first F1 race this season following a bout of Covid; and Fernando Alonso was left “speechless” in the wake of a race that promised so much and delivered a big fat zero.
Unlucky to be pitched into an accident in qualifying by a technical failure, the Alpine driver had been set for a place on the first two rows of the grid. Instead, from 10th he ran long on the hard tyre and rose up the order, only for Vettel’s safety car to hurt his strategy. When he finally did stop for medium-compound Pirellis, he routed them trying to make up lost ground, pitted for more and finished last.
Good day for Williams
In contrast, Alex Albon and Williams played a novel game that delivered a much-needed world championship point. The Thai driver ran almost the entire 58-lap distance on one set of hard tyres, only stopping on the penultimate tour to secure 10th place.