Charles Leclerc dominated the Australian Grand Prix after Max Verstappen retired with another apparent power unit problem.
The poleman was cleanly away from the grid and kept Verstappen at bay in the early laps, but it soon became clear the Dutchman was struggling. He reported severe graining on his left-front medium tire and locked up several times in the tricky final sector, dropping a lot of time to the leading Ferrari.
Things only got worse from there. Having made no inroads during the pit stops, Verstappen’s car lost power down the front straight on lap 38, forcing him to park by the side of the road and retire from the race.
“I smell some weird fluid,” he radioed. “Everything is s***ing itself.”
It’s Verstappen’s second retirement of the season after his engine shut down due to a fuel system problem in Bahrain.
This freed Leclerc to cruise to the flag with a commanding 20.5-second advantage over the field and the first grand slam of his career, having led every lap of the race and set the fastest lap of the afternoon in addition to starting from pole.
“What a car today,” he said. “Of course I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car. I’m just so happy.”
The result extended Leclerc’s championship lead to 34 points at the head of the table and 46 points over reigning champion Verstappen, cementing himself as an obvious title favorite.
“Obviously we’re only at the third race, so it’s difficult to think about the championship but we’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too.
“I hope it continues like this, and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years, which have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself. It’s great to be back in this position.”
Sergio Perez scored his first podium of the season after rescuing places lost during a mid-race safety car deployed to clear Sebastian Vettel’s crashed Aston Martin. He dropped form third to fifth behind George Russell and Fernando Alonso at the intervention, and though the Alpine was relatively easy pickings, it took a laps-long siege on the Mercedes to sweep around Russell’s outside at Turn 11 to eventually take second place.
“It’s a good result,” he said. “Unfortunately we lost Max – it would’ve been great to have a double podium for the team … we’ve been a bit too unlucky in the first three races.”
George Russell collected the first podium of his Mercedes career after benefiting from the safety car, which vaulted him ahead of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton and into an eventual third place.
“We’ve got to be in it to win it and capitalize on others’ misfortune,” said Russell, who’s now second in the drivers championship standings. “Obviously we got a little bit lucky today, probably twice, but we’ll take it. To be standing on the podium is special.
“We’re never going to give up. We’re going to keep on fighting. We were a long way behind our rivals, but here we are standing on the podium.”
Hamilton finished fourth and substantially ahead of McLaren teammates Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, who didn’t have the pace to match the Mercedes cars on the hard tires at the end of the race.
Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine, ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, who took advantage of a late lock-up by Pierre Gasly at the penultimate corner to demote the Frenchman to ninth. Gasly also ended the race under investigation for a safety car restart incident in which Mick Schumacher almost ran into the back of him and teammate Yuki Tsunoda, which will be heard after the race.
Alex Albon was an excellent 10th after starting last on the grid because of a penalty. The Thai driver started on the hard tire and ran for 57 of 58 laps before switching to the soft for the final tour, dropping from seventh to 10th to secure the final point of the race and Williams’s first of the season.
Zhou Guanyu finished 11th ahead of Lance Stroll, who was penalized five seconds at the flag for weaving in front of Bottas.
Haas teammates Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher were 13th and 14th respectively. Schumacher had been running ahead of Zhou until lap 50, when he ran wide at the first turn and let the Chinese driver and his own teammate slip past, dropping him down the order.
Yuki Tsunoda ended the race 15th ahead of Nicholas Latifi and Fernando Alonso, last of the finishers, who was forced into a late pit stop after struggling badly late on mediums.
Vettel retired halfway through the race after crashing his car exiting Turn 4, getting on the curbs and nosing the barrier, while Carlos Sainz’s race lasted less than two laps. The Spaniard got his braking wrong into Turn 9 and slid across the grass, over the track at Turn 10 and into the gravel. He was lucky to avoid collecting the passing traffic but ended up beached.
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 58 1:27’46.548
2 Sergio Pérez Red Bull 58 1:28’07.072 20.524
3 George Russell Mercedes 58 1:28’12.141 25.593
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 58 1:28’15.091 28.543
5 Lando Norris McLaren/Mercedes 58 1:28’39.851 53.303
6 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren/Mercedes 58 1:28’40.285 53.737
7 Esteban Ocon Alpine/Renault 58 1:28’48.231 1’01.683
8 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo/Ferrari 58 1:28’54.987 1’08.439
9 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri/Red Bull 58 1:29’02.769 1’16.221
10 Alexander Albon Williams/Mercedes 58 1:29’05.930 1’19.382
11 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo/Ferrari 58 1:29’08.243 1’21.695
12 Lance Stroll Aston Martin/Mercedes 58 1:29’15.146 1’28.598
13 Mick Schumacher Haas/Ferrari 57 – 1 lap
14 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 57 – 1 lap
15 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri/Red Bull 57 – 1 lap
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams/Mercedes 57 – 1 lap
17 Fernando Alonso Alpine/Renault 57 – 1 lap
Max Verstappen Red Bull 38 – Retirement
Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin/Mercedes 22 – Spun off
Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1 – Spun off