Charles Leclerc wins Australian Grand Prix to extend championship lead

Max Verstappen forced into second retirement in three races; Lewis Hamilton fourth

Imperious, untouchable, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc’s took victory at the Australian Grand Prix with an almost carefree insouciance. Ferrari have delivered the car and Leclerc demonstrated definitively in Melbourne the sure touch of a champion in waiting.

In the sunshine of Albert Park Leclerc enjoyed a calm confidence that stood in stark contrast to the black mood that must be descending at Red Bull, epitomised by the frustration and anger of defending champion Max Verstappen whose title hopes fell away in a swirl of smoke as his Red Bull spluttered and died at the side of the track.

While Red Bull absorbed the blow of Verstappen's car expiring, the second time it has retired in three races, it was compounded by the Dutchman having to face the ignominy of being overtaken in the championship by both Mercedes drivers. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who were third and fourth, have not had the car to even challenge Red Bull all season, yet they leave Melbourne ahead.

In what is likely to be a closely-fought development war, Verstappen is more than aware of the weight of every point that has slipped through his fingers, even with 20 races still remaining. Leclerc has opened a chasm to the chasing pack with 71 points, Russell moved up to second on 37 with Hamilton now on 28, three in front of Verstappen’s 25.

The lead is deserved on behalf of both Ferrari and Leclerc. The 24-year-old was in a league of his own in Melbourne, sealing a grand slam of pole, win, leading every lap and the fastest lap, he led by a full 20 seconds at the flag. Crucially his car ran like clockwork and was the class of the field, its pace, balance and handling demonstrating that Ferrari have the package to beat this year.

Red Bull’s kit is no doubt quick but also questionable. Sergio Pérez did take second but the team know how strong Ferrari are and can fight them only if their machinery keeps turning over. A double DNF at the first round in Bahrain was felt to be an outlier, a one-off issue with a fuel pump problem. Another failure here, this time ascribed to a fuel system issue outside the tank with a solid second place in Verstappen’s hands when his car ground to a halt with 19 laps to go, is more ominous. Verstappen was scathing in his assessment.

“We are already miles behind,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about the championship fight at the moment, I think it is more important to finish races. We didn’t even finish the race so it’s pretty frustrating and unacceptable. These kinds of things, if you want to fight for the title, cannot happen.”

For Mercedes, while still out of the fight with Ferrari and Red Bull, there will be optimism from what has been a torrid opening to the season. It is Russell’s first podium having completed a full race, his previous second place at Spa awarded when the result was declared after three laps because of the poor weather. He was aided by exploiting a short pit stop under the safety car but both he and Hamilton had to push their troublesome car to hold their places.

That they were able to do so and for the first time this season actually threaten the Red Bull of Pérez was a positive sign but there remains a long way to go. No major updates are yet ready to solve their porpoising problem but in Melbourne they displayed their most combative race pace of the season. The car maintains the potential to come good and clinging to Leclerc’s coat tails is as much as they can hope for.

The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, acknowledged that his team remained almost a second a lap off the pace but celebrated the return his two drivers were delivering with difficult machinery. “Seeing Lewis and George perform at an exceptionally high level today, with a tool that is clearly not on the pace of the leaders, is another example of the spirit of this team,” he said

They can for the moment only hope to take the competition to Leclerc. Should they do so it will be no easy ride. This is Leclerc’s second win this season having also taken the flag in Bahrain. Ferrari have two wins from three races, a statement of intent that cannot be ignored with a potentially title-winning ride.

“We’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too and for now we’ve always been there so I hope it continues like this,” he said. “If it does, then we probably have chances for the championship.

With the race returning after a two year absence because of the pandemic, Leclerc’s triumph was delivered at Albert Park in front of a capacity crowd revelling in the return of racing. Attended by 420,000 people it was the biggest sporting weekend in Australian history, reflecting the surge in popularity of F1.

They were treated to a masterclass out front. The Monegasque driver led from pole and having opened a gap was barely threatened. His drive was, bar one sluggish safety car restart, flawless. He and Ferrari now enjoy a daunting advantage heading into their home race at Imola in two weeks time where Verstappen and Red Bull must comeback before the Scuderia disappear into the distance.

McLaren’s Lando Norris was fifth and his teammate Daniel Ricciardo in sixth. Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine, Valtteri Bottas in eighth for Alfa Romeo, Pierre Gasly ninth for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon an impressive 10th for Williams. - Guardian