Charles Leclerc is driving like a demon as he extended his lead in the drivers’ championship to 34 points by winning the Australian Grand Prix with another near-perfect performance.
Retirements for Leclerc‘s closest title rivals, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, will prove crucial in the title race even though it’s only the third round of the 2022 Formula 1 season.
Mercedes and McLaren hit back from a disappointing opening two rounds, with George Russell taking his first podium in a race that was more than one lap. There’s no doubt Australia will be looked back on as a key moment in the championship.
Perfection from Leclerc again
In a similar vain to the season-opening Bahrain GP, Leclerc was on tremendous form, except he faced less pressure from Red Bull as he romped away from the field on three occasions at the start and after each of the Safety Cars.
Leclerc put together a brilliant lap in qualifying, underling his one lap pace by beating Verstappen by 0.294 seconds.
The only time Leclerc‘s win looked under threat in the race was at the second Safety Car restart when he ran slightly wide, which put Verstappen on his tail. From there, the Monegasque driver cruised into the distance to complete the grand slam – pole position, lead every lap of the Grand Prix, fastest lap and the win.
Leclerc is the first Ferrari driver to do the grand slam since Fernando Alonso at the 2010 GP and his pole position was the team’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, the year they last won the drivers’ championship.
“What a car today,” said Leclerc post-race. “I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car.
“This weekend the race pace was extremely strong. The tyres felt great from the first lap to the last lap.
“We’ve got a very strong car, a reliable one too, so I hope it continues like this. If it does, we probably have a chance for the championship.”
The scary thing is Leclerc looked like he had plenty of pace in hand, whilst everyone else was sliding and had problems in the tricky final sector.
Even with 10 laps to go, Leclerc was asking to go for the final lap at the end of the Grand Prix, so he’s clearly switched on and is thinking about picking up every point he can. He’ll take some stopping in Imola.
Misfortune turns to anguish for Sainz
It wasn’t all roses and champagne at Ferrari though because Carlos Sainz‘s Sunday was short-lived. He was having a great weekend and was on course to at least qualify in the top three until compatriot Fernando Alonso caused a red flag in Q3, just a couple seconds before the Ferrari driver was about to complete his lap.
Sainz‘s steering wheel failed prior to the race, where he started from ninth, which was partly the reason for his awful getaway, as he was swallowed up by the pack.
Everything after that was purely down to Sainz though and he will be incredibly frustrated. The Spaniard placed his car in all the wrong places, struggling to generate tyre temperature into his hard tyres.
On Lap 2, Sainz tried to mount a recovery by going around the outside of Mick Schumacher at the high-speed Turn 9, but took far too much speed into the corner, subsequently losing control of his Ferrari and was lucky not to collect another car when he came back across the track and beached the car in the gravel. He can only blame himself for his early retirement.
Given the pace Ferrari had this weekend, a 1-2 was definitely possible, even with Sainz starting down in ninth.
Concern for Red Bull
Failing to finish the race will quickly put you out of title contention, something Verstappen and Red Bull are quickly realising after the Dutchman came to a halt due to a fuel leak.
It’s not the same issue Red Bull had in Bahrain and the team will also be worried about their pace compared to Ferrari.
“We’re already miles behind,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “I don’t even want to think about a championship fight at the moment. I think it is more important to finish races.
“I mean, today was, in general, just a bad day again, not really having the pace, so I was just managing my tyres to try and bring it to the end.
“It looked like quite an easy P2 anyway, and I knew I could not fight Charles, so there was no point to try and put pressure on him.
“But we didn’t even finish the race, so it’s pretty frustrating and unacceptable.”
Verstappen never looked comfortable all weekend, even stating post-qualifying he hadn’t had a lap where he felt confident.
In the slow-speed corners, the Red Bull looked very twitchy which doesn’t bode well for the next four events which have more slow turns than Albert Park.
Verstappen has lost a minimum of 36 points through reliability woes after three rounds, which will prove very costly at the backend of the season.
Russell makes the most of Safety Car timing
For the second race running, the Safety Car played a role on the podium positions. This time, Russell benefitted as he made his first pit stop when Sebastian Vettel crashed his Aston Martin and brought out the Safety Car.
Russell was set to emerge on sixth, but his cheaper pit stop saw him come out in third. He held off Perez with some great driving, before the Red Bull driver eventually got by at Turn 11.
Lewis Hamilton appeared to be the slightly quicker driver on Sunday, but Mercedes won’t care too much as to which of their drivers take the chequered flag first.
“It’s credit due to the team for giving us so far, a very reliable car and we’ve got to be there at the end to capitalise from these results,” Russell, who is second in the Drivers’ Championship, told the press.
“It’s definitely not based on pace but I think it’s been a respectable start to the season in terms of how we’ve managed to optimise our lack of performance and I think every race we’ve done, we have truly maximised the result possible.
“But unfortunately, there’s nothing substantial in the pipeline anytime soon. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to take a number of races.
“I think there’ll be little things, there’ll be incremental steps but we recognise that our rivals are going to be doing the same so it may not be clear to the outside world that we’ve made progress because Ferrari and Red Bull are going to be making progress as well.”
Mercedes‘ tyre management looked very strong and were faster than Red Bull during some parts of the race. Without doubt, the Silver Arrows are going in the right direction and there were signs that Hamilton and Russell could soon be Ferrari‘s biggest challengers.
Hope for McLaren
McLaren also maximised their result with fifth for Lando Norris and sixth for Daniel Ricciardo. The new high-speed Albert Park layout played into McLaren‘s hands and Norris was keen to say that the car will really struggle on slower tracks.
“The track has changed and the car has gone quicker,” Norris told Sky Sports. “The car is exactly the same as Bahrain. I want to be optimistic and be happy but it’s track specific.
“We’ve made some small steps as a team, but at the same time there’s not too much that’s different. There are some positives to take away, we just need to work on the negatives.”
Norris and Ricciardo were able to push both Mercedes‘ on the medium tyres, before bringing the car home on the hard tyres to move the team into fourth in the F1 Constructor Standings.
You want to be positive about McLaren, but Norris‘ comments and the weaknesses of the MCL36 in the tighter turns is preventing the team from getting too jubilant. Let’s hope the Australian GP isn’t McLaren‘s high point of the season.
Albon’s unusual strategy gives Williams a point
It looked like Alex Albon was never going to make a pit stop as he decided to start on the hard tyres and took them all the way to the last lap of the race.
Lance Stroll‘s arduous defence helped Albon a lot because Valtteri Bottas, Pierre Gasly and, crucially, Guanyu Zhou were slowed down by the Canadian.
Meanwhile, Albon continued to pump out the lap times to essentially overcut several drivers. He emerged alongside Zhou at the pit exit, so was able to block him from ducking underneath and taking the position down to Turn 3.
It’s a huge point for Williams because they have not had a lot to cheer about in the season so far.
Aston Martin’s weekend from hell
Aston Martin had an unacceptable weekend, full of crashes and incidents which is borderline embarrassing for any F1 team, and they will know that deep down.
Stroll was at fault for his collision with Latifi in qualifying, when he strangely turned right to make contact with the Williams. Had Stroll kept the car straight, contact would have been avoided. A five-second time penalty for weaving on the straights ended Stroll’s hopes of points.
As for Sebastian Vettel, what can you say. The four-time world champion was returning from coronavirus and he looked nothing like a top F1 driver.
An engine issue in FP1 prevented Vettel from competing in FP2, then he crashed in the final practice session at Turn 10 and was fortunate to drive in qualifying, ironically helped by teammate Stroll‘s collision with Latifi.
A minor off at Turn 11 was followed by a spin and another crash at Turn 4 to bring Vettel‘s retched weekend to an end. He also picked up two fines for riding a scooter after first practice and for speeding in the pit lane. Has there been a worse weekend for a driver?