Charles Leclerc took victory at the Australian Grand Prix for Ferrari with an outstanding drive from pole to take a dominant win over Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez. Max Verstappen’s title hopes took a blow as the defending champion was forced to retire for the second time in three meetings. Mercedes made the most of his misfortune, with George Russell securing third place and Lewis Hamilton in fourth, as their car showing its best race pace thus far this season. McLaren’s Lando Norris was fifth.
With the race returning after a two-year absence because of the pandemic, Leclerc was in complete control at Albert Park in front of a capacity crowd reveling in the return of racing. Attended by 420,000 people it was the biggest sporting weekend in Australian F1 history, dwarfing even the 356,000 who were at Silverstone last year.
The win has extended Leclerc’s lead at the top of the championship after three rounds with a planned 20 still to go. Leclerc now has 71 points, Russell moves up to a second on 37, with Verstappen on 25 now and behind Hamilton, who has 28 points.
This is Leclerc’s fourth win and his second this season having taken the flag at the first race in Bahrain. Combined with second in Saudi Arabia it is an enormously strong opening for him and his team. Having claimed pole with a mighty lap he went on to prove to have the edge in race pace. This is the start to the season Ferrari can only have dreamed of, being realized with an almost carefree insouciance.
The opening for Ferrari with two wins from three races is exactly what the Scuderia required and a statement of intent that cannot be ignored. They are leading the title fight and, with a flawless piece of execution in Australia, are clearly going to take some beating.
Leclerc was on it from the off. I have made a clean start to hold his lead. Hamilton was decisive off the line, passing Norris and then ducking up the inside of Pérez for third through turn one. Racing was swiftly interrupted on lap three, however, when Carlos Sainz went off, overcooking it into turn nine and prompting the safety car.
Leclerc held his place for the restart on lap seven, with Verstappen firmly on his tail, but the Ferrari on a heavy fuel load was suffering from heavy porpoising. Pérez in a clearly quicker Red Bull came back at Hamilton, retaking third with ease on the run to turn three on lap 10.
As the car settled beneath him Leclerc promptly exploited the pace Ferrari have demonstrated all weekend. He opened a two-second gap to Verstappen, as the Dutchman reported his tires were graining. By lap 13 he was over five seconds up the road, while Hamilton and Russell were holding station in fourth and fifth in front of the two McLarens, already in a different race, 15 seconds off the lead. The Mercedes were showing good race pace and better balance than previously across the weekend.
The race settled through the opening stages, with Leclerc in absolute control in the clean air. Red Bull pitted Verstappen for the hard tire on lap 19, hoping for a more competitive pace from the new rubber. Hamilton had closed on Pérez who was pitted on lap 21, with Mercedes buoyed by the first time this season they have been in a position to challenge Red Bull on track.
Ferrari took their stop for Leclerc on lap 22, Hamilton following him in. The Briton’s pace had been strong on the final laps before the stops and he emerged in front of Pérez but the Mexican quickly struck to retake the place. Their fight was stymied when the safety car was called on lap 24 after Sebastian Vettel spun and crashed at turn four and Mercedes immediately took advantage, pitting Russell who emerged in third, in front of Hamilton and Pérez.
At the restart Leclerc was caught by Verstappen before the Ferrari man quickly reasserted his dominance. Three seconds clear by lap 32 and setting repeated fastest laps, Leclerc remained ultimately untroubled.
Russell had stoutly held off Pérez for a third, again reason for optimism at Mercedes until the Mexican finally swept past on lap 36, with Russell aware of using his tires up driving defensively.
The drama was in Leclerc’s wake, however. Verstappen had looked solid for at least second place only to pull over as his car gave up on lap 39, with a potential hydraulic problem. Red Bull have a quick car without a doubt but a disappointed Verstappen knows they cannot afford to drop points with reliability problems.
The midfield had been closely matched though the race, if somewhat processional but Leclerc remained in a class of his own, 20 seconds clear at the flag. He was flawless over the final third and took fastest lap to seal his position from him as the clear championship frontrunner.
Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth for McLaren, Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine, Valtteri Bottas in eighth for Alfa Romeo, Pierre Gasly ninth for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon an impressive 10th for Williams.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism