Australian Grand Prix – Max Verstappen took the win behind the Safety Car after a chaotic end to a thrice Red Flagged Grand Prix that he’s mostly dominated.
After the overcast, rainy sessions of the past few days Albert Park was bathed in sunshine for the start of the Grand Prix. Max Verstappen will be starting on pole ahead of the two Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton. It had been pretty close between them all in the final part of qualifying with the hold on provisional pole constantly swapping hands until the Red Bull racer’s last run which sealed the position and his first Australian pole start.
There’ll only be eighteen cars lined up on the grid in the newly super-sized grid boxes – to hopefully prevent more issues of drivers lining up incorrectly – for the race as Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez changed parts during Parc Ferme. The two were due to start from the last row but Bottas had his suspension setup changed while Perez also changed his suspension setup as well as having his Energy Store and Control Electronics replaced and that meant the stewards sent the two of them to the pit lane.
As the cars lined up it was the yellow-ringed medium tyre compound that was the tyre of choice for just over half the grid but there were some alternate strategies – Pierre Gasly P9, Esteban Ocon P11, Zhou Guanyu P17 and Bottas pitlane were all going to start on softs while Nyck de Vries P15, Logan Sargeant P18 and Perez pitlane chose the hards instead.
It might’ve been Verstappen’s first pole at Albert Park but he didn’t get to enjoy the view from the front for too long though as Russell got a fantastic start and got down the inside of the reigning champion and then Hamilton followed through a corner later to give Mercedes a 1-2. Things didn’t go as well for Charles Leclerc however as the Ferrari driver’s race ended after just a few corners as he and Lance Stroll’s tyres made contact and the Monegasque spun into the gravel.
The Safety Car was called at the end of the opening lap to cover the retrieval of the beached Ferrari and the race got back underway on lap 4. The top three broke slightly away from the pack and when the DRS was enabled on lap 6 Hamilton started to close and start looking at potentially making a move.
That inter-team battle didn’t get to play out however as the Safety Car neutralised the race once again on lap 7 when Alex Albon made a mistake and crashed from P6 ended what had been a really strong weekend for the Williams racer up to that point. Russell, as well as Carlos Sainz, ducked into the pits to swap to the hards handing the lead to Hamilton while Russell rejoined in P7 and Sainz dropped to P11 from P4.
On the following lap though the race was Red Flagged, due to all the gravel and debris that had been thrown onto the track, which meant that all drivers would be able to change tyres so it was bad luck for those who’d pitted as they’d lost track positions with no advantage.
After fifteen or so minutes the cars headed back on track for a standing start, Verstappen not being happy with the gap Hamilton left between himself and the Safety Car which led them around to the grid while there was chaos at the back with the slow pace catching drivers out and Kevin Magnussen had to straight line it through the gravel to prevent hitting anyone. The restart procedure was announced to be under investigation as the cars lined up on the grid.
Hamilton was able to hold onto the lead at the start while Russell was able to make up a couple of places to P5. Verstappen was right on Hamilton’s tail and once the DRS was available to him the Dutch driver went around the outside of the Mercedes to take the lead on lap 12. As Verstappen started pulling a gap, the following lap saw Russell’s recovery get a step better as he dispatched Gasly for P4 and set his sights on Fernando Alonso in P3.
Lap 18 saw it all fall apart in a more definitive way for Russell as he slowed and pulled in at the pit exit with smoke and fire billowing out of the rear of his Mercedes. A Virtual Safety Car was called while his car was doused and recovered and the race was back to green on lap 19.
At that stage Alonso was within a second of Hamilton while Sainz had recovered to P5 and was lining up Gasly to continue his progress. Speaking of progress, on lap 23 Perez who’d been dispatching cars left, right and centre, broke into the points positions and was even up to P9 before the end of the same lap.
It took longer than expected but on lap 25 Sainz finally managed to get past Gasly for P4 after selling the Alpine racer a dummy and shooting down the inside at T3. Things calmed down at the front over the next few laps while Verstappen continued to increase the gap between first and second while Hamilton had Alonso remaining around a second behind him.
After making it into the top ten in good time, Perez’ progress had slowed down but on lap 37 the Mexican had finally made it to within a second of Lando Norris but the McLaren driver was putting in a good performance to laps similarly to Perez, both on nearly 30 laps old hards, to keep the gap quite stable. It took the Mexican until lap 43 to be able to stay within the second and get the advantage of the four DRS zones to finally make it to P8. Hulkenberg caused much less of a problem and it was P7 for Perez before the end of the following lap.
Lap 48 and there was a bit of drama for Verstappen as he went wide and over the grass at the penultimate corner, losing four seconds of his lead though he was still over seven seconds ahead of Hamilton.
Perez passing Norris and Hulkenberg and left the latter two in close proximity on track and battling for P8. The Haas driver was able to hold off the papaya coloured car on two occasions but it was third time lucky for Norris as he took P8 on lap 52 as Hulkenberg took a trip through the gravel.
On lap 53 Magnussen’s rear right tyre ejected itself from the Dane’s wheel after contact with the wall and he had to pull over at the side of the track. The third Safety Car of the race was called the following lap and on lap 55 the Australian Grand Prix was Red Flagged for the second time, to avoid ending behind the Safety Car, meaning that there would be a two lap shoot-out for the victory once the track was cleaned up.
With soft tyres on the sixteen remaining drivers headed back out of the pitlane to make their way around behind the Safety Car to line up for the third standing start of the day. It was absolute chaos at the restart and there was a third Red Flag thrown after only a few corners. Sainz went into the side of Alonso, ending the Aston Martin driver’s day while the two Alpines took each other out. Perez and Stroll went through the gravel to avoid incidents which dropped them to P10 and P12 while de Vries and Sargeant weren’t as lucky and ended up beached. The restart was put under investigation.
Things were then left in confusion as to whether the race would resume either another standing start or behind the Safety Car, or if the race would be called and the positions awarded based on the previous lap. The current order is – Verstappen, Hamilton, Sainz, Hulkenberg, Tsunoda, Norris, Piastri, Zhou, Bottas, Perez, Alonso, Stroll.
After a long time with no information, the FIA finally decided that the race would restart behind the Safety Car in the order that they were at the previous restart so that would put the order as – Verstappen, Hamilton, Alonso, Sainz, Stroll, Perez, Norris, Hulkenberg, Piastri, Zhou, Tsunoda, Bottas. A relief for Aston Martin and Perez but annoyance for Haas as Hulkenberg had been P4 but with Sainz potentially being penalised for contact with Alonso, a P3 wasn’t looking like a huge impossibility.
As the cars were being put into the new order in the pitlane the stewards announced an investigation into the contact between Sainz and Alonso and then handed the Ferrari racer a five second penalty which, with the race to end behind the Safety Car, those behind him will be right on his tail to drop the Spaniard right down from P4. Sainz was very unhappy to hear the news and wanted the stewards to wait to discuss the incident with him after the race “No, it cannot be, it’s unacceptable! They need to wait until the race has finished and discuss with me. Wait, wait, wait, wait and discuss with me. The penalty is too severe!”
With the rolling restart despite the Safety Car ducking into the pits at the end of the out lap, cars aren’t permitted to overtake until they cross the start/finish line but the will be greeted at the line by the chequered flag so there won’t be any overtaking.
Verstappen, Hamilton and Alonso will share the podium while Stoll took P4 as, despite his best efforts, Sainz couldn’t pull enough gap and his penalty dropped him to P12 and last. Perez took P5 after starting the race from the pitlane and it was a double points finish for McLaren, also their first points of the season, with Norris in P6 and Oscar Piastri, in his first home race, in P8.
Hulkenberg finished in P7 and then stopped on track after the flag while Zhou and Tsunoda rounded out the points places. After finishing the other two races this season in P11, Tsunoda was only saved from a third in a row by Sainz’ penalty. The fastest lap went to Perez who set a 1:20.235.