Charles Leclerc took an impressive runaway victory for Ferrari at the Australian GP, as race and championship rival Max Verstappen suffered another disastrous retirement with a Red Bull issue in Melbourne.
Verstappen, who also had a reliability DNF at the Bahrain season-opener, was running second when he was told to stop his Red Bull with 20 laps remaining, as smoke then poured from his engine as he exited the car.
But the world champion still wouldn’t have been a match for Leclerc, who was utterly dominant on Sunday and has now extended his early-season title lead to a healthy 34 points.
Leclerc led from pole and was rarely troubled – minus a Verstappen attempt following a second Safety Car restart – with Ferrari comfortably fastest.
“The car was incredible today,” said Leclerc, who put the cherry on top of his display with a last-lap fastest lap to give him the maximum 26 points.
Sergio Perez was second in the other Red Bull after managing to overtake both Mercedes cars, although finished 20 seconds off Leclerc.
George Russell completed the podium and is now Leclerc’s closest challenger in the championship, with Mercedes enjoying a positive Sunday despite Lewis Hamilton’s frustrations in fourth.
Hamilton had gone from fifth to third on the opening lap and was ahead of Perez again later in the race, although a Safety Car from Sebastian Vettel’s crash in the Aston Martin played into his team-mate’s hands.
There was also an early-race Safety Car thanks to Carlos Sainz beaching his car, the only blip on an otherwise sublime Grand Prix for Ferrari.
Sainz, who should have been in the fight for pole in qualifying but unluckily ended up ninth on the grid, dropped early positions on the hard tyre before braking too late in the final sector and running over the grass and into the gravel.
McLaren, like Mercedes, capitalised on Sainz and Verstappen’s issues with strong points, with the Woking team achieving their first double top-10 of the season with Lando Norris and home favourite Daniel Ricciardo fifth and sixth.
Fernando Alonso didn’t finish in the top-10 despite his obvious speed in the Alpine, with Alex Albon scoring his and Williams’ first points of the season despite stopping for the first and only time with a lap remaining.
Australian GP race result: Top 10
1) Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
2) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
3) George Russell, Mercedes
4) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
5) Lando Norris, McLaren
6) Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
7) Esteban Ocon, Alpine
8) Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo
9) Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri
10) Alex Albon, Williams
Sublime Leclerc’s early title advantage as Max and Red Bull implode again
In the third race of the 2022 season, Leclerc and Ferrari enjoyed their most dominant day yet and the Monegasque already boasts what is a rather ominous title lead over his rivals.
From the first lap when he aced the start, to the last when he post the fastest lap of the race, Leclerc was in total control and Ferrari were often lapping a second quicker than any other car.
While Sainz’s early exit was a blow, Ferrari were then handed a boost with Verstappen – the only driver who has been a match for Leclerc so far this season – retiring.
Much like it’s too early for Ferrari to get complacent about two wins from three it is too early for Red Bull to panic about two DNFS from three, although there will certainly be concerns after their star driver was hampered again.
Verstappen said he detected a “weird smell” before being told to pull over, and while the smoke hinted at engine issues Red Bull boss Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1 after the race that he suspected a fuel problem – which also ended Verstappen’s race in the opening Bahrain GP.
While he won in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen is already 46 points behind Leclerc.
“We’re already miles behind, so I don’t even want to think about the championship fight at the moment,” said Verstappen.
“Today was in generally just a bad day and not really having the pace. But we didn’t even finish the race, which is pretty frustrating and unacceptable.
“These kind of things, if you want to fight for the title, cannot happen.”
Signs of progress for Mercedes and McLaren
While Mercedes haven’t been particularly quick this season they have been reliable, and on Sunday they scored more points than both Ferrari and Red Bull with their third and fourth for Russell and Hamilton.
There were also positive signs in terms of their pace despite the lack of upgrades, with their drivers able to battle with Perez in the Red Bull.
“This weekend, we’ve had so many difficult moments with the car,” said Hamilton. “So to get ourselves fifth and sixth in qualifying and to progress like we have, we definitely didn’t expect third and fourth.”
It was Russell’s first podium for Mercedes and his first ‘real’ one in F1 after his maiden voyage in the abandoned Belgian GP last year. “We got a bit lucky twice, but we’ll take it and there is so much work going on to try to get us back to the front,” said the young Englishman.
“To be standing on the podium is special.”
McLaren also made gains in Melbourne, as while Norris dropped down from his fourth-placed grid slot he and team-mate Ricciardo managed to maintain their position as the fastest midfield team.
Elsewhere, Valtteri Bottas scored more points for Alfa Romeo while Aston Martin had another miserable day, with Vettel crashing out of his first race of the season and Lance Stroll taking a five-place penalty for weaving when defending position on his way to 12th.
What’s next for F1 2022?
The 2022 season continues with the Emilia Romagna GP, with all the action from Imola live on Sky Sports F1 from April 22-24. Heading back to Italy sees the return of the Sprint, the shortened Saturday race which sets the grid for Sunday’s main Grand Prix.