Leclerc, 24, signed his fourth victory in F1 – the second of the year, after that of Bahrain – by winning with a ‘Grand Chelem’: starting from pole, leading from start to finish and also setting the lap fast in the race
The Monegasque won ahead of ‘Checo’, second in the Albert Park semi-urban circuit, and Englishman George Russell (Mercedes); who completed the podium in a race that confirmed the misfortune of the Spaniards in this Grand Prix: the double Asturian world champion Fernando Alonso (Alpine) finished seventeenth; and his compatriot Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) from Madrid had to leave, after having an accident -without major consequences- in the third of the 58 laps.
Verstappen, of the same age as the pilot from the principality of the Côte d’Azur and winner two Sundays ago in Saudi Arabia, suffered a hydraulic leak and retired with 19 laps to go in a race that seven-time English world champion Lewis Hamilton ( Mercedes), whom the young Dutch star ‘dethroned’ last year, finished fourth; ahead of the two McLarens of his compatriot Lando Norris and the Australian Daniel Ricciardo, sixth this Sunday before his fans.
Leclerc now leads with 71 points and will arrive in Imola (Italy), venue in two weekends for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, with an advantage of 34 units over Russell, another 24-year-old driver, who after signing his second podium in F1 -after finishing second last year, under the deluge, the grotesque race two laps behind the safety car, in Spa (Belgium)- rose to second place in a championship in which Sainz, after “an weekend to forget”, is now third, with 33 points; and ‘Checo’, fourth, with 30.
Australia recovered, two years after it was blown up, due to the covid-19 pandemic, the subsequently reconfigured 2020 World Cup; when in March of that year it would have hosted the first race of the course, suspended just a few hours before free practice had started: with all the teams and personnel displaced to Oceania and after the first positives began to occur. It did so not only transmitting sensations of normality, but also of joy: with the stands full throughout the weekend and an attendance that, according to the organization, exceeded 400,000 spectators.
Leclerc – who on Saturday had signed his eleventh ‘pole’ in F1 – maintained first place, ahead of Verstappen, at the start; in which Hamilton advanced two places -by beating Norris and ‘Checo’-, to place third.
Alonso, whom bad luck embraced strongly in these first three tests of the year; and that on Saturday he rode in times of ‘pole’ before having an accident in Q3 of qualifying, he maintained his tenth place on the grid at the beginning. And Sainz, also very unlucky in the main qualifying session, and who, like his compatriot, started with a hard tire -the rest of the top ten did so with the medium-, lost five places; before, risking to try to recover positions, he had to leave: in the third of the 58 laps that were given to the renovated Albert Park, with a much faster track than the one in 2019, when the Finn Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo, eighth this Sunday) had won the last race held in Australia. With a Mercedes.
Sainz, second in Bahrain and third in Arabia, lost control of his car in the ninth of the fourteen corners of the track, spinning and ending up -without major physical consequences- in the gravel, from which he could no longer get his car out. The accident of the man from Madrid meant that the safety car entered the track, when his teammate Leclerc was leading the test, ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton; whose team, Mercedes, ‘limping’ at the start of the course, also minimized damage in ‘Down Under’ and is second – 39 points behind Ferrari – in the Constructors’ World Championship. A championship that the ‘silver arrows’ won continuously for the past eight seasons.
The Mexican from Red Bull was fourth when the race was re-launched, on the tenth lap; with Alonso in tenth place. ‘Checo’ overtook Hamilton, recovering the third place that he occupied in the starting formation; before his Dutch teammate stopped, in lap 19 -going from medium to hard- and Leclerc was already leading without any problems; while Fernando overtook the Frenchman Pierre Gasly, ninth this Sunday with his Alpha Tauri.
Pérez stopped at 21, one before Leclerc and two before Hamilton -all going from medium to hard-, who overcut the Mexican in that pit stop, whom he overtook. But two laps later the second ‘safety car’ entered, caused by the German Sebastian Vettel, another of the unlucky ones, who stopped the Aston Martin.
Vettel, quadruple world champion (2010-13, with Red Bull) returned to the World Cup in Australia after missing the first two races of the year, due to two positives for coronavirus. On Friday he had an engine problem that prevented him from starting in the second free practice, before on Saturday it caused, first, one of the red flags of the last test; and was, later, eliminated in Q1 (first round of qualification). In which he was only able to participate because his Canadian teammate Lance Stroll gave rise to a new red banner by causing the accident of his compatriot Nicholas Latifi (Williams), giving time for the German’s car to be repaired.
The ‘safety car’ benefited Russell, who went on to ride third, behind Leclerc and Verstappen -who, when the race was re-launched, in the 26th, threw himself at the Monegasque, who masterfully contained the attack of ‘Mad Max’-; but he hurt Hamilton, who was provisionally relegated to fifth. Alonso, who had not stopped yet, was running fourth at the time.
‘Checo’, who, despite finishing second, was not entirely satisfied with the weekend -“I think we made a mistake with the direction we took with the car; and that hurt us a bit”, affirmed a brave driver from Guadalajara after the race- he had overtaken Russell before lap 39, when Verstappen’s car ‘drowned’, due to a hydraulic leak, decreeing a virtual safety car , when Alonso was running sixth.
The Spaniard from Alpine, who pitted on the next lap, dropped to thirteenth to tackle the final leg of the race; being one of the few that rode with the medium -in theory, the fastest- at that time.
But when his comeback was expected, his tyres, especially the front left one, began to suffer enormous degradation, for which he had to replace them again four laps from the end, and he finished seventeenth. “There are 23 races and only three go; so in one of the twenty that remain we hope to be lucky”, commented the brilliant Asturian driver after this Sunday’s race in Australia, where in 2006 -the year he revalidated the title- he achieved one of his 32 victories in F1: the 32 that Spain has throughout its history in the queen category.
With the end of the ‘virtual safety’, ‘Checo’ was second, behind Leclerc and ahead of Russell. And so the positions were maintained until the final flag, until ‘Prince Charles’ was able to savor a new victory, which he celebrated practically without breaking a sweat in the race. Confirming that he aspires to everything. And that Ferrari, the most successful team of all time, but which has not won the drivers’ world championship since 2007 – when the Finn Kimi Raikkonen did it – is indeed back.