Max Verstappen survived a poor start and three red flags, including a dramatic restart with two laps to go, to win a chaotic Australian Grand Prix and extend his championship lead to 15 points over his teammate.
The Dutchman lined up on pole but found himself third after a nightmare first lap in which he was passed at lights out by George Russell and then into Turn 3 by Lewis Hamilton.
Alex Albon’s crash on Lap 7 brought out the first red flag, allowing the world champion to make up a place when Russell opted to pit, and he then made light work of Hamilton at the restart to reclaim top spot.
But any thoughts of strolling to the chequered flag were dashed when Kevin Magnussen hit the wall on Lap 54, as race control once again opted to red flag the session, this time with just two racing laps to go.
That set up a grandstand finish from a standing start with a top three of Verstappen, Hamilton and Alonso, and the trio held station into Turn 1 until chaos ensued behind.
Carlos Sainz, who made a sluggish restart from fourth, torpedoed up the inside and into the back of Alonso, sparking a chain reaction that left the Alpines beached in the wall and the Albert Park layout showered in debris, bringing out the third red flag.
After another lengthy delay, the FIA reset the order, restoring Alonso to third, with the pack ironically ordered to complete the final lap behind the safety car, guaranteeing Verstappen his second win of the season.
“We had a very poor start, and lap one I was careful because I had a lot to lose and they had a lot to win,” Verstappen said.
“After that, the pace of the car was quick – you could see that straight away. We were always there, waiting for the DRS for the chance to pass.
“But with these red flags, I don’t know. The first one, maybe you can do it but the second one I don’t understand.
“So, it was a bit of a mess, but we survived everything and we won, which, of course, is the most important thing.”
Behind the top three, Sainz picked up a five-second penalty that dropped him from fourth out of the points, while Pierre Gasly was the biggest loser, unable to restart from fifth.
That promoted Lance Stroll to fourth and a grateful Sergio Perez, who started from the pit lane, to fifth.
Lando Norris and Nico Hulkenberg finished sixth and seventh respectively, ahead of Oscar Piastri and Zhou Guanyu, with Yuki Tsunoda rounding out the top 10.
Drivers question late red flag – why?
Magnussen‘s incident with four laps to go initially brought out the safety car and struck an eerily similar chord to the drama of the 2021 Abu Dhabi title decider.
But rather than risk finishing under safety car conditions, the red flag was waved, meaning the race could restart with two proper laps to go, leaving many of the drivers perplexed.
Verstappen, Hamilton and Alonso were all critical on team radio, with the Spaniard calling it a “stupid rule” and the world champion questioning it again in the aftermath.
Hamilton: I still feel uncomfortable
The seven-time world champion was powerless to keep Verstappen behind but drove well to hold off Alonso, who was within two seconds for the majority of the 58-lap shootout.
Mercedes undoubtedly looked to have a far better package around the streets of Melbourne, but despite finishing second, Hamilton insists he is still struggling to tame the W14.
“I still feel uncomfortable in the car, I don’t feel connected to it so I am driving as best I can with that disconnect and I am working as hard as I can to try and create that connect but it is a long project,” he told David Coulthard.
“But still, considering we have been down on performance and the straight pace compared to the Red Bulls, for us to be up here fighting with Aston, it is just amazing at this point in the season.
“If we can close that gap, it is going to be tough, but it isn’t impossible.”