Martin Brundle: Charles Leclerc and Ferrari deliver Australian GP statement as Max Verstappen’s title defence stutters

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Highlights of the Australian GP from Albert Park, Melbourne.

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Highlights of the Australian GP from Albert Park, Melbourne.

Highlights of the Australian GP from Albert Park, Melbourne.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc have really aced these new for 2022 F1 cars. The Ferrari F1-75 is a benign and very fast car suitable for every circuit so far including Barcelona, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the revised Melbourne layout.

Leclerc has stepped up to a higher plane, delivering speed with consistency and seemingly always a half a step ahead of this car, rather than close to the edge of the car’s limit and the occasional heavy shunt as we’ve seen in the past. The new regulations suit him and he’s developed confidence and increased self-belief.

Two pole positions, two wins, a second, and three fastest laps in three races rather confirms that.

His team-mate Carlos Sainz had the weekend from hell, missing out on a solid qualifying lap when his friend Fernando Alonso caused a red flag by crashing due to technical issues, and then with further engine starting dramas not delivering a representative lap. Out of true position in 9th on the grid he needed a last-minute steering wheel change which led to an awful start, and he then proceeded to have a brutal midfield fight on hard compound tyres, eventually impatiently spinning off the road.

Sky F1's Karun Chandhok analyses how Carlos Sainz suffered a terrible race at the Australian Grand Prix.

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Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok analyses how Carlos Sainz suffered a terrible race at the Australian Grand Prix.

Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok analyses how Carlos Sainz suffered a terrible race at the Australian Grand Prix.

He may well end up having to play a supporting role to Leclerc from here, depending on how the competition shapes up and if he can win the next couple of races, which is not out of the question.

With Max Verstappen registering a victory and two retirements so far he’s already 46 points behind Leclerc in the championship down in sixth place.

Max used words such as ‘unacceptable’ in the pen interviews to describe his unreliability issues before it was smoothed out a little later, but a fuel leak sidelined him from the Australian GP which was generally quite a torrid weekend for the team under the surface. It was a different fuel issue that took him out of the Bahrain GP.

Max Verstappen retires after engine issues causes him to pull off the track at the Australian GP.

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Max Verstappen retires after engine issues causes him to pull off the track at the Australian GP.

Max Verstappen retires after engine issues causes him to pull off the track at the Australian GP.

There’s a long way to go yet but Leclerc has almost two races advantage over him, and right now a faster car.

New track, new cars and Australian GP improves

It’s difficult to know how much difference the faster and more open Albert Park track made but it’s fair to say it helped with some overtakes into turn 3 and the revised and re-numbered turn 11. The racing was the best we’ve seen there for years, viewed trackside by 128,000 people, although it was by no means a classic.

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen battle for the lead on the safety car restart of the Australian GP.

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Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen battle for the lead on the safety car restart of the Australian GP.

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen battle for the lead on the safety car restart of the Australian GP.

The cars, especially the midfield, continued to be able to race more closely and once again we saw very little contact in wheel-to-wheel racing. One of the revelations of the research into the latest aero changes was just how much downforce and grip was lost not only when following another car but also when running side by side.

Think of the Hamilton and Verstappen side-by-side battle into Copse corner for the infamous crash last year and many other apparently clumsy shunts which could well have been invisibly aero affected more than we realised.

Sergio Perez overtakes Lewis Hamilton into third place of the Australian GP.

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Sergio Perez overtakes Lewis Hamilton into third place of the Australian GP.

Sergio Perez overtakes Lewis Hamilton into third place of the Australian GP.

With a lot of those aero issues fixed, drivers are clearly able to keep better control of their cars in close combat. That will be further enhanced no doubt with numerous team to driver warnings that if they damage too many parts they’ll be out of the race.

In that respect it was a nightmare for Aston Martin. With Sebastian Vettel in the wall heavily twice, and Lance Stroll in the wall and also predominantly to blame for a collision with Nicholas Latifi’s Williams, their spare parts supply room must have echoed all the way to a big and very full shipping container of broken carbon fibre out back. And with today’s cost cap budget that’s cash which really only needs to be going into updates.

Damage limitation continues for Mercedes

With the exception of struggling Aston Martin, we didn’t get the same indication as per the first two races that Ferrari-engined cars were towards the front and Mercedes-engined cars were towards the back. The Mercedes team and the Mercedes-powered McLarens looked much stronger although despite two safety cars closing the pack and just Leclerc cruising out front, the Mercs still finished 25 seconds behind, and the McLaren duo a closely fought 53 seconds adrift. There’s a long way to go to catch up.

Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with Mercedes' progress over the weekend, with himself and George Russell finishing fourth and third respectively.

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Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with Mercedes’ progress over the weekend, with himself and George Russell finishing fourth and third respectively.

Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with Mercedes’ progress over the weekend, with himself and George Russell finishing fourth and third respectively.

George Russell got lucky with the safety car but you need to be competitive before and after that to benefit and he certainly was. He doesn’t appear to be struggling to keep with Lewis in qualifying or race trim and that’s impressive against the great man. George is second in the drivers’ championship due to classy fault free driving and reliability. Now he needs the car performance to take a decent step forward in a hurry.

Lewis was disappointed in fourth struggling with an overheating engine but the team must have been pleased that they used their tyres better than Red Bull in the first half of the race. The whole Mercedes team are definitely applying ‘damage limitation’ extremely very well.

Who were the other Melbourne standouts?

McLaren are clearly beginning to return their car to a sensible aero base after the hurriedly butchered brake cooling changes in Bahrain and I would expect them to edge forward from there. Norris and home boy Ricciardo were equally matched in a solid and reliable car.

Valtteri Bottas drove another fine race to eighth for Alfa Romeo, in a winning car he’d still be winning races.

Lando Norris and Alex Albon discuss their car's performances after a dramatic race at the Australian Grand Prix.

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Lando Norris and Alex Albon discuss their car’s performances after a dramatic race at the Australian Grand Prix.

Lando Norris and Alex Albon discuss their car’s performances after a dramatic race at the Australian Grand Prix.

Alpine flattered to deceive on pace. Esteban Ocon came home seventh 62 seconds off the lead, and Fernando Alonso, who would have started on the first two rows without his downshift issues in qualifying, was very fast for the whole event but came away with nothing and finished 17th and last, having run as high as fourth by not stopping behind the safety car after a late stop to fit tyres and go for fastest lap, which Leclerc denied him on his last victorious tour. It was that kind of day for Fernando who is driving with a lot of speed and passion.

And so to Alex Albon who started last after Williams couldn’t provide enough fuel for the required legality check sample post-qualifying. Eking out his hard tyres all the way to the penultimate lap until the regulations forced a pit stop, along with endless midfield fights, he still managed a world championship point. And even without Stroll’s five-second penalty for weaving down the pit straight Albon would have finished ahead of him, whilst also being only three seconds behind the highly-rated Pierre Gasly.

Sebastian Vettel hits the barriers and crashes out of the Australia GP.

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Sebastian Vettel hits the barriers and crashes out of the Australia GP.

Sebastian Vettel hits the barriers and crashes out of the Australia GP.

That was a very solid day for the Grove team. Yes I know Williams used to win lots of races and championships but in 2022 that’s irrelevant. Sunday was a significant day for the partnership of Williams and Albon.

Much of the vast Australian crowd had ditched their Red Bull merchandise for McLaren papaya caps in honour of ‘their’ man Ricciardo. I wonder how the grandstands in Imola at the next race will look.

MB



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