G’day! Welcome back to Albert Park, in the sunny city of Melbourne, Australia, for the Australian Grand Prix!
The last time F1 cars raced around the beautiful setting of Albert Park was in 2019, though teams and fans had assembled for the 2020 race, which was then cancelled at virtually the last second (due to the covid-19 pandemic). The 2021 did not go ahead for the same reason, but now, finally, F1 is back down under!
A revised track waited for the drivers (the areas marked in red represent the changes). Wider corners and the removal of chicanes created a circuit that, in theory, was up to five seconds a lap faster. Also in theory, we’d see more overtaking action into turn 13, and also into turn 1. Would this pan out to be true? Before we could find out, we’d have to get through qualifying… and qualifying proved disruptive. Quite a few incidents affected the grid, but perhaps none more so than Fernando Alonso’s crash. He had looked mighty in his Alpine, perhaps even on course for an unlikely pole, but his accident had a knock-on effect on the Ferrari of fellow Spaniard Carlos Sainz. Sainz was forced to abandon his flying lap and ended up starting ninth.
Sainz would start on the hard tyre, and this would see him get bogged down. He couldn’t generate any heat into his tyres, and on lap two ran off-track at turn 11, across the track (nearly collecting other cars) and trundling into the gravel. Sainz was out, and his car’s potentially dangerous location brought out an early safety car.
At the front, Leclerc got away well and so did Verstappen. The Ferrari and the Red Bull led Hamilton’s Mercedes (Lewis got ahead of the second Red Bull of Perez into turn 1), until DRS came into play and Perez breezed by Hamilton. From there, it looked like the race would be somewhat processional, for despite pre-race predictions of Red Bull having strong pace, Leclerc was comfortably pulling away. Things did change slightly – Russell got ahead of Hamilton via the pitstops – due to Sebastian Vettel (returning from a covid-enforced absence) binning his car and destroying his front wing. In the ensuing circumstances, Alexander Albon put his Williams up to seventh, having not started on hard tyres, and having not stopped.
Leclerc nearly stuffed up the second restart, but in the end held off Verstappen and then once again began to pull away. Verstappen tried but with two thirds of the race completed his car suffered a second fuel-related problem in three races, forcing him to retire. Perez inherited second place and Russell inherited a podium position of his own, with Hamilton in fourth, followed by the McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo. The order out front would remain unchanged, placing Leclerc in a position of powerful dominance in the title race. He sits on 71 points, and remarkably, Russell is second on 37 points, followed by Sainz on 33 points and Perez on 30 points. Hamilton is fifth on 28 points and Verstappen is sixth on 25 points.
Every team bar Aston Martin has now scored at least a point. Albon pitted on the penultimate lap for soft tyres, but had done enough work on the hard tyres to pick up 10th. Incredibly, Mercedes occupy second in the Constructor’s Championship, though they remain some way off the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull, so the odds are they’ll be overhauled quite quickly. F1 rolls into Imola next. Expect a lot of Ferrari support!