Eight talking points from a returning Australian GP

11th April 2022
Damien Smith

He’s starting to dare to believe. Charles Leclerc has spent much of the past two years killing time during a period of Ferrari mediocrity. But no more. The new F1-75 is the class of the Formula 1 field right now, as Leclerc proved with a dominant victory on Grand Prix racing’s feel-good return to Melbourne’s Albert Park. Just to compound his happiness, world champion Max Verstappen dropped out from second place at two-thirds distance to leave Leclerc with a commanding lead in the drivers’ standings. It’s early days in a long season, of course – but right now Ferrari and its brilliant Monegasque driver are looking very strong.


Leclerc in untouchable form

Even before Verstappen retired from the race on lap 39 of 58, he knew he was a beaten man on a weekend when Ferrari had a clear performance edge in this intriguing battle with Red Bull. Leclerc qualified more than two-tenths faster than Verstappen as the pair locked out the front row on Saturday, then made a decent start to lead on Sunday.

A pair of safety car periods put Verstappen back into range, particularly from the second restart when Leclerc ran wide out of the final corner and made himself vulnerable to attack. But at a circuit where overtaking has always been a challenge – even with three DRS zones in use this weekend – Leclerc shook off the threat, fortunate that DRS is not active from a restart. It was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect performance as he stroked homes to his fourth career win and second of 2022.

Verstappen’s retirement, his second in three races following his DNF in Bahrain, has left him with an already gaping 46-point deficit to his old karting rival. There are 20 races still to run this year, so of course that can be made up, but it pushes Red Bull heavily onto the backfoot as F1 returns to Europe and Imola in two weeks’ time.


Verstappen brands retirements “unacceptable”

That was the Dutchman’s predictable verdict on his fate, and the team could only accept his bitter disappointment. The cause of the retirement was not immediately diagnosed, but required marshals to cover the car in extinguishant. Is it a coincidence that Red Bull’s new-found unreliability has coincided with its move to its status as an independent team, following Honda’s withdrawal?

In theory we shouldn’t be seeing a join this season, given that the engines have been prepared by the same Honda staff based in the same Milton Keynes factory during a period of organised transition for the newly formed Red Bull Powertrains department. But at a time when the massive chassis regulations have understandably hogged most of the focus, perhaps it’s been too easy to overlook the pressure every engine department has been under this winter.

A move to E10 fuel offered a significant power-sapping challenge, while the new homologation freeze that will last until a fresh engine formula is introduced in 2026 has pushed teams to extract the most from their 1.6-litre turbo hybrids – while trying to avoid reliability problems. Jumping to conclusions is never wise in F1, but when teams have been walking such a fine line on these engines, perhaps this unreliability is a consequence of stepping over the limit.


Russell lucks in for podium

The lack of Mercedes pace was again a clear and obvious talking point in Melbourne, with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finding themselves powerless to take the fight to Ferrari and Red Bull – albeit showing in the race that the dominant team of this hybrid era is at least a clear third in the pecking order.

Hamilton made a strong getaway from fifth on the grid, starting behind Lando Norris in the McLaren. He ran third early on, but had little defence against Sergio Perez who had initially lost out at Turn 1. Hamilton closed back up ahead of the pitstops and even rejoined ahead of ‘Checo’ after running longer. But the manner in which the Red Bull drove around the Silver Arrow at Turn 9 said much about where the bouncing Mercedes finds itself right now.

The seven-time world champion then found himself shuffled off what would become a podium finish by team-mate George Russell, who benefitted from a well-timed safety car interruption following Sebastian Vettel’s crash. Russell hadn’t yet pitted, and took the opportunity as the rest of field were circulating slowly to emerge ahead of Hamilton.

Later in the race Hamilton complained on the radio: “You guys put me in a really difficult position”. If he was referring to the change of order between the team-mates, there really wasn’t much Mercedes could do about this one. Not for the first time in recent weeks and months, Hamilton just caught bad luck with a safety car. Russell now finds himself an unlikely second in the drivers’ points table, 34 behind Leclerc and nine ahead of his team-mate.


Misery for Carlos Sainz Jr

While Perez provided some consolation for Verstappen’s retirement with second place for Red Bull, there was nothing for Leclerc’s team-mate to smile about. Carlos Sainz Jr endured a miserable Australian GP, having got a bad break in qualifying to line up just ninth on the grid.

He then made a poor start on Pirelli’s hard tyre and, while trying to recover, slid off at Turn 9 on lap two. Sainz spun into a gravel trap from which there was no hope of escape. It was a bitter blow for the Spaniard on a weekend when he needed to make up ground on Leclerc to thwart a clear pecking order emerging at Ferrari. Resisting that dreaded number two label has just got more difficult.


Upturn for McLaren

Following a disappointing first two races, McLaren showed an encouraging turn of pace in Albert Park, with both Norris and Aussie home hero Daniel Ricciardo qualifying well within the top 10.

They then raced to a respectable five-six finish after a relatively trouble-free race, finishing ahead of Esteban Ocon’s Alpine, Vatteri Bottas’s Alfa Romeo and Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri after another furiously fought midfield Grand Prix.


Frustration for Alonso

The Alpine driven by 40-year-old double world champion Fernando Alonso promised so much but delivered so little at Albert Park. The Spaniard looked set for a heroic qualifying effort on Saturday that would likely have left him somewhere on the first two rows of the grid, only for a technical problem to throw him off the track at Turn 11.

Starting 10th, Alonso then made the most of the alternate strategy of starting on the hard Pirelli tyre, rising as high as fourth before his stop. But the timing of the Vettel safety car played against him and he eventually stopped after the brief Virtual Safety Car period caused by Verstappen’s retirement. As ever, he proved combative having dropped to 13th, but routed his medium tyres and was forced to stop again. Finishing 17th and last left him “speechless”.


Unhappy return for Vettel

The day was even worse for Sebastian Vettel, who made his first F1 start of the year after missing the first two rounds with Covid. The four-time champion struggled all weekend and was out of sorts in the race, running wide into the gravel at Turn 11 early on. He then lost his Aston Martin for good on the exit of Turn 4 on lap 23, smacking his AMR22 into a wall.

Team-mate Lance Stroll attempted to make up for a dreadful weekend for the Silverstone-based team – but if anything, he tried too hard, and received a five-second time penalty for weaving on the pit straight while desperately defending against Gasly. The team had done well on strategy to get him into the points, but Stroll eventually finished 12th.


Williams makes its point

Aston Martin is now the only team this season to have failed to score a point following a great effort from Alex Albon and Williams in Australia. Remarkably, the Thai driver ran almost the entire distance on a set of hard tyres, eventually making his mandatory pitstop on the penultimate lap and re-joining in 10th. As strategies go, it was certainly different – but it worked a treat for a team that desperately needed a lift.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • F1 2022

  • Formula 1

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Ferrari

  • Red Bull

  • Max Verstappen

  • George Russell

  • Mercedes

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