Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Charles Leclercʻs Dominating Drive, Mercedesʻ Good Fortune, Alex Albonʻs Finish

Charles Leclerc enjoyed a lovely trip down under as Formula 1 raced in Australia for the first time in three years.  The race became Leclercʻs second win of the season and the fourth of his career.  The win moved him further out in front in the driverʻs standings, now holding a 71-37 lead over second-place George Russell.

Russell is hanging onto that position after scoring his first podium of 2022 by finishing third, a surprising result for Mercedes as the car has yet to perform to either driverʻs liking.  As frustrating as the performance has been, Russell has yet to finish outside the top five.

Sergio Perez finished a distant second to Leclerc and sits fourth in the driver’s standings.  Perez could never match teammate Max Verstappenʻs pace the results seem to indicate that Ferrari are the favorites moving forward.

Lewis Hamilton managed to finish fourth after a yeomanʻs performance driving what he called a “spiteful rattlesnake,” during the weekend.  Lando Norris led a resurgent McLaren team by earning the fifth spot with his teammate, and Australian fan-favorite Daniel Ricciardo taking sixth.  Esteban Ocon gave a steady and composed drive to finish seventh with Valtteri Bottas giving Alfa Romeo another points-paying position by crossing the line in eight.

Pierre Gasly hovered around tenth for much of the race but pulled through to earn ninth, giving Alpha Tauri crucial points.  In the shocking finish of the day, Alex Albon snagged tenth, delivering Williams its first point of the season.

Leclercʻs dominating win came as his teammate Carlos Sainz crashed out at the beginning of the race.  With a poor showing in qualifying that put him ninth, Sainz then struggled to get off the line and something seemed amiss with his Ferrari from the start.  His ensuing wreck looked more like a merciful end to his race than a disappointing conclusion.  His retirement, however, allowed Mercedes to keep the gap close in the constructorʻs standings, as Ferrari lead 104–65.

The Race

By lap 20, Leclerc had pushed to a lead of 16 seconds over second-place Perez.  Verstappen had been sitting in second but pitted, after falling behind by seven seconds.

On Lap 24, the race opened an opportunity for Verstappen, when Sebastian Vettel crashed out and caused a second safety-car period.  Verstappen held close to Leclercʻs rear wing, gave a peek as the two approached turn one, but fell into line.  Two laps later, Leclerc had again shown the Ferrariʻs strength by creating a one-second gap and avoiding any threat from a DRS-assisted challenge by Verstappen.

From there, Leclerc set himself on pace for a clean drive to the finish.  Verstappenʻs power-unit failure on lap 39, felled him from the race, dropping any real threat to Leclerc.  Even though Perez moved into second, he could provide none of the same challenge to the eventual winner, finishing over 18-seconds behind.

See also
Grand Chelem For Charles Leclerc In Dominant Melbourne Win

Team battles came into play for Mercedes and McLaren but with no drama emerging.  But further back in the field, Lance Stroll was a one-man show in the final quarter, providing commotion enough for a number of drivers.  Stroll nearly hit Yuki Tsunoda under the safety car, gaining a five-second penalty; then was warned about how he swerved heading into corners while attempting to block; then provided to be the roadblock to a parade of DRS-enabled cars seeking to overtake.  He fell from ninth to 11th in a couple of laps and then became a non-story from there out.

The Good

– Fans will likely recall that the cancellation of the 2020 Australian GP came at the front of the global shutdown.  The teams had arrived in Australia and readied themselves to race.  And then McLaren pulled out.  That decision instigated the fallout from other teams and then the FIAʻs decision to cancel the event.

The sport shut down, as did so many other things, and the teams sequestered themselves with no idea of when there might be another race.  The answer came in summer when F1 returned to the track in Austria in front of empty stands.  The improvised season concluded with nary a return to Australia.  And the 2021 season passed without one as well after the country enacted strict regulations while case counts ballooned.

So returning in 2022 was cause for jubilation.  With a reconfigured track to exhibit and starved fans all too eager to celebrate F1ʻs return, the setting and response were electric.  Even though Leclerc may have toasted the field, there is no reason not to call the visit to Melbourne a success.

The Bad

Mercedes have gained no better handle on their car.  The porpoising issue was further highlighted during the qualifying session.  There was no reason to slow any of the footage down to notice how much the car bounces up and down as it loads and unloads its G-forces.  If there is perhaps any reason for optimism for Mercedes fans, it comes in the fact that the Ferrari also showed substantial porpoising at Albert Park.

Red Bull should feel concerned after Verstappen has suffered two DNFs in the first three races.  The defending series champion is now 46 points behind Leclerc.  While not insurmountable, the deficit is a large one even with 19 or 20 races to go.  Throw in the fact that Ferrari looks to have awakened from a decade-long slumber and there stands to be reason that Verstappen may not be able to repeat this year.  More troubling for the team is how the power-unit concerns may play out as a whole, denying Red Bull the chance to fight for the constructorʻs title while also preventing Alpha Tauri from showing any kind of encouraging form.

See also
Max Verstappen Retires from Australian Grand Prix, Second Engine Failure in Three Races

Sebastian Vettel suffered through the worst weekend of his F1 career in Australia.  His power unit failed in FP1.  The team could not fix the damage to allow him to drive in FP2.  In FP3, he wrecked.  He almost missed qualifying due to the carʻs blighted condition and then qualified 17th.  Throw in the wreck in the GP and all that can be stated is that the weekend ended like he was put out of his misery.  Leaving Australia will probably never feel so good.

The Questionable

– One of the rumors that emerged over the weekend was that Singapore may host a second GP.  Still seeking to fill the empty race date when F1 canceled its relationship with Russia, ending the Russian GP, the sport has yet to find a happy solution.  One of the thoughts had been to fill the date with another trip to Turkey but that does not seem to be in play after doing so in 2020 and 2021.

The question arises as to whether a second race in Singapore is the best way to go?  While the track is a lovely street course and provides a unique venue at night, it does not always deliver the best racing.  There is no word how serious this idea may be and there may be evidence that the new car could mitigate the difficulty in overtaking, but this is clearly an idea needing deeper consideration.

The Driver

– Sometimes the winning driver looks like they had it “easy,” which seems to apply to Charles Leclerc and his grand prix in Australia.  But then there is someone that puts together an inspiring effort, which is what Alex Albon did after starting dead last.

Albon had faced penalties for contact with Lance Stroll at the Saudi Arabian GP and then incurred the second one after Williams could not offer the one-litre of fuel during qualifying.  The grid drop mattered little as he would have started 17th at best, so he took his place at the back and looked like he would do nothing with his Williams–especially as teammate Nicholas Latifi failed to make any impression in the race.

But the team strategy of keeping Albon on hard tyres for nearly the duration of the race, 57 of the 58 laps, even as Pirelli advised the tyres would last about 40 laps, proved inspiring.  By managing his Pirellis Albon and Williams made a far-fetched strategy pay off to excellence, giving Albon a wonderful story in his return to the sport.

The Notable

Neils Wittich, taking over the race director position from Michael Masi, seems to be bringing a stricter sense of management to the grid.  At the onset of the GP, Wittich let it be known that undergarments were something of concern.  Apparently, a number of drivers are failing to comply with mandates surrounding fire-proof underwear, with some possibly driving commando.

Also coming into play were the jewelry and piercings drivers wear while in the car.  Wittich pushed that chains around the neck and piercings should be removed, a call that seemed to point at Lewis Hamilton more than anyone.

While the intent may or may not have been to call out Hamilton but what Wittich really seems to be doing is setting an authoritative tone to keep control of the drivers and teams.  That he punished Sebastian Vettel for riding a scooter on track offered another example of how Wittich is grabbing everyoneʻs attention and changing the relationship between what had been a more lax one with Masi.

The Quotable

­– Charles Leclerc seems like he better get used to offering these kinds of statements, offering “What a great victory this was for us! We managed our pace well and were extremely competitive. We didn’t suffer from tyre degradation, even when pushing hard. The car was just amazing and I’m very pleased with how my race went.On paper, this was a track that we expected to be tough for us, so we have to review our data because we were in fact very strong.It’s a great way to start the season, but we have to keep in mind that we are only three races into a very long championship.”

– Max Verstappen is already aware of the challenge ahead of him, remarking, I already knew there was a possibility ahead of the race that we might not finish but I tried not to think about it. This is not what you need when you want to fight for the Championship, the gap is already pretty big.”

– George Russell ebulliently stated, We got a little bit lucky today, probably twice, but we take it. There’s so much hard work going on back at base to try and get us back at the front so to be standing on the podium today is special a reward for all their hard work.”

The Results: Australian Grand Prix, Prince Albert Park, Melbourne (Apr 10)

Pos No Driver Car Laps Time/Retired PTS
1 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 58 1:27:46.548 26
2 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull Racing RBPT 58 +20.524s 18
3 63 George Russell Mercedes 58 +25.593s 15
4 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 58 +28.543s 12
5 4 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 58 +53.303s 10
6 3 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 58 +53.737s 8
7 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 58 +61.683s 6
8 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo Ferrari 58 +68.439s 4
9 10 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri RBPT 58 +76.221s 2
10 23 Alexander Albon Williams Mercedes 58 +79.382s 1
11 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo Ferrari 58 +81.695s 0
12 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Aramco Mercedes 58 +88.598s 0
13 47 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 57 +1 lap 0
14 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas Ferrari 57 +1 lap 0
15 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri RBPT 57 +1 lap 0
16 6 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 57 +1 lap 0
17 14 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 57 +1 lap 0
NC 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing RBPT 38 DNF 0
NC 5 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Aramco Mercedes 22 DNF 0
NC 55 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1 DNF 0

Note – Leclerc scored an additional point for setting the fastest lap of the race. Stroll received a five-second penalty for weaving on the straight.

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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