Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari dominated the Australian Grand Prix while Max Verstappen’s RB18 failed while running second
Monaco’s Charles Leclerc gave Ferrari a magnificent flag-to-flag victory at the Australian Grand Prix with a dominant win over Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez. Max Verstappen had hounded Leclerc until the Dutchman’s engine failure forced his RB18 retirement for the second time in three Grands Prix.
Mercedes took quick advantage of Verstappen’s engine failure, as George Russell secured third place with Lewis Hamilton in fourth, raising the team’s spirits with their fastest race pace of this young season. McLaren’s Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were fifth and sixth.
From first practice forward, Leclerc’s F1-75 looked in supreme control at Albert Park, cheered on by a capacity crowd of 420,000 people, the most significant sporting weekend in Australian F1 history.
After three rounds, Leclerc now has 71 points. Russell moves up to second with 37, while Verstappen remains at 25 and is now behind Hamilton with 28 points.
Melbourne waited patiently for the return of F1 since early 2020 when fears of mass Covid-19 infection cancelled that season’s Australian Grand Prix. Reeling from the pandemic, F1 would need another four months of inspired rescheduling before that season could get underway.
Rising from that bleak scenario, F1 has outlasted the infection, found challenging new venues, and instituted the potent new ground-effects car formula.
Added to those 2022 changes was a significantly revised Albert Park track.
With the new F1 rules designed to follow cars closely, the Aussies altered their venerable layout, predicting lap times some five seconds quicker than in the past. Now, F1 pilots would balance daring overtaking possibilities with the threat of more costly missteps.
While significant changes began with faster apex speeds in Turn 1, Turn 6, and the penultimate corner, the most significant change was removing the chicane at Turn 9 and Turn 10.
The result enables a much longer flat-out run to the high-speed chicane previously labelled Turn 11 and Turn 12.
Drivers now blast into the new Turn 11 at prodigious speeds, balancing a more significant braking zone with the tighter right-hand corner.
While all teams took an extra week’s pause to review their Bahrain and Jeddah form notes, Mercedes worked around the clock searching for solutions to cure their W13B’s violent porpoising and lack of grip.
Never in the last nine seasons has the team faced such a disturbing and speed-robbing glitch.
Having claimed pole position with a mighty lap, Charles Leclerc instantly took command from lights out to hold his lead, with Verstappen firmly on his tail. Hamilton hustled off the line, passing Norris and then slicing up the inside of Pérez for third through Turn 1.
The biggest surprise was third place starter Carlos Sainz, who had set his clutch too soft at the start, instantly falling behind half the field. As Sainz hustled to regain positions on Lap 3, he fell off the track at Turn 9 and stalled. He was out, triggering the Safety Car.
At the restart on Lap 7, Leclerc held the lead with Verstappen locked on his tail, but the Ferrari’s heavy fuel load was causing pronounced porpoising. On Lap 10, Pérez attacked Hamilton, quickly retaking third approaching Turn 3.
Once his F1-75 resettled on its warm tyres, Leclerc promptly put his boot into it. He immediately opened a two-second gap to Verstappen, just as the Dutchman reported his tyres were graining. By Lap 13, the Monegasque was alone, over five seconds ahead.
Meanwhile, Hamilton and Russell were alone in fourth and fifth, their Mercedes exhibiting balance not seen earlier in the weekend. The two McLarens hung on much farther back, 15 seconds off the lead.
With the poised Leclerc showing absolute control in the clean air, Red Bull rolled the dice. Verstappen stopped for the hard tyre on Lap 19, looking to reel in the streaking Ferrari. With Hamilton’s Mercedes drawing closer, Red Bull pitted Pérez on Lap 21.
Ferrari brought Leclerc in for tyres on Lap 22, with Hamilton following him in. His Mercedes pace had quickened as his fuel burned off, and the buoyed Hamilton rejoined ahead of Pérez. The Mexican, however, would have none of that, wasting no time retaking the position.
Their continued fight was immediately dampened on Lap 24 after Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin spun and crashed at Turn 4, triggering the Safety Car. Mercedes immediately reacted, pitting Russell, who rejoined in third place in front of Hamilton and Pérez.
Verstappen briefly attacked Leclerc at the restart as the Ferrari ace let his tyres slowly regain heat. By Lap 32, the unflustered Leclerc had calmly pulled out a 3-second lead by setting repeated fastest laps.
Meanwhile, Russell thwarted constant attacks from Pérez for third until the Brit thought the better of destroying his tyres by driving defensively. The Mexican swept past on Lap 36.
By Lap 38, Leclerc’s lead seemed to have stabilized at around 5.3s, but Verstappen reeled off another fastest lap. Leclerc calmly reacted by putting his boot into it, stretching the gap beyond 6s.
Leclerc’s pace brought consequences. Verstappen, in a solid second place, slowed to a stop with a fatal engine problem on the next lap. Leclerc remained in a class of his own from that moment on, 20 seconds clear at the checkered flag. He was flawless over the final third and took the fastest lap to seal his position as the clear championship frontrunner.
Of the remaining field, Esteban Ocon took seventh for Alpine, Valtteri Bottas in eighth for Alfa Romeo, Pierre Gasly ninth for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon, after only stopping for tyres on the final lap, finished a heroic tenth for Williams.
“In a Formula 1, it is the first one where we controlled a little bit, the gap, and honestly, what a car today,” said Leclerc.
“Of course, I did a good job where we can, but it was not possible without the car, and especially with the race pace, we were strong. The tyres felt great from the first to the last lap. We were managing the tyres extremely well and I am just so happy.”
Leclerc continued, “It was very difficult, especially the safety car restart. I had an understeer into the last corner, and I thought it would be difficult to keep the first position, but then we managed to do so, and after the last two, three corners I managed to regain the gap.”
“Obviously, we are only at the third races so it is difficult to think about the championship, but we have a very strong car, a very reliable car too, and for now, we have always been there. So, I hope it continues like this, and if it does, we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and, obviously, for myself, so it is great to be back in this position.”
Indeed, after the wilderness of the last two seasons, Ferrari’s start to the 2022 season might seem but a dream; it is their strongest statement of intent in years.
With their clear and flawless demonstration of form in Australia, the Scuderia will become even stronger.