Ferrari's Charles Leclerc took his second win of 2022 and extended his lead in the drivers standings with victory in the 2022 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
He had controlled the race from the start, able to parry anything that Max Verstappen could throw at him even before the Red Bull suddenly expired on lap 38 leaving the Monegasque with a clear run to the finish.
The retirement promoted his team mate Sergio Perez to second with Mercedes' George Russell joining them on the podium ahead of Lewis Hamilton with the McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the top six.
As well as Verstappen, there were also early exits for Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel in separate accidents that trigged safety car intermissions.
A little over two years since we were last in Melbourne only to fall victim to the onset of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Formula 1 was finally back in business down under and was greeted by blue skies, sunshine, and a huge record crowd of enthusiastic Aussies keen to see local hero Daniel Ricciardo and the rest of the drivers back in action after far too long away.
Much had changed in F1 in the meantime, with this year's new rules and regulations radically changing the sporting landscape for 2022. This was evidenced by another pole position for championship leader Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari, ahead of reigning world champion Max Verstappen in second who was followed by his Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez and by McLaren's Lando Norris ahead of an all-Mercedes third row consisting of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell. The top eight were all starting on mediums, with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and Alpine's Fernando Alonso the first of six cars opting to begin on the hard compound from ninth and tenth.
When the lights went out, Leclerc was able to sweep across and discourage Verstappen from making a move, while Hamilton had more success and gained two places to move into third after leaving his braking super late allowing him to take advantage of Perez who found himself boxed in. Behind Perez was Russell and the McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo. But while one Ferrari flew at the front, Sainz' terrible weekend saw him drop to 13th on the cold tyres before he went off heading into turn 9 on lap 2, across the grass and into the gravel - fortunately without hitting anyone along the way. With the F1-75 beached, a safety car was eventually scrambled to that marshals could undertake retrieval operations.
Having started from the back row anyway, Aston Martin's Lance Stroll took advantage of the pause in proceedings to pit - not once but twice, from hard to medium and back again in the hopes of picking up a strategic advantage down the road. Racing resumed at the end of lap 6 of 58, with Verstappen having to follow the new restart rules meaning there was no opportunity for his usual game playing. Leclerc maintained the lead into turn 1 and started to pull away before DRS was reactivated. However the Ferrari didn't look the most comfortable of rides this weekend, porpoising resulting in some clearly visible bouncing down the straights.
After his early success, Hamilton wasn't able to hold on to the two leaders and instead was under increasing pressure from Perez snapping at his heels. No matter how defensive Hamilton got, once DRS kicked in there was too big a performance difference between them and the Red Bull soon pulled off a perfect pass on the Mercedes through turns 3 and 4.
Ten laps in and there had still been just the one retirement, although Nicholas Latifi briefly strayed off in the Williams while Sebastian Vettel had sprayed gravel onto the track at turn 11 and was lucky not to get stuck n the sandpit. "Sorry about that," he told the Aston Martin pit wall over the team radio. Verstappen also had a lock-up: "My left front is completely grained," he announced as he fell more than five seconds behind Leclerc, suggesting that those teams planning to extend their stint on the mediums could be in for a tough afternoon.
Having taken third, Perez managed to pull away from Hamilton, who was being protected from further attacks from behind by Russell running in fourth ahead of a train of closely-matched cars consisting of Norris, Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso, with Valtteri Bottas and Yuki Tsunoda just outside the points-paying positions.
From further back, Haas' Mick Schumacher was one of the first to make a scheduled pit stop on lap 15, with Ocon in from P8 on lap 18 coming back out in clear space. Next time by it was Verstappen's time to stop and trade up the mediums for hard tyres, returning in seventh just behind Ricciardo. Perez soon followed suit, which released Hamilton and Russell just as the Mercedes was showing signs of better pace with the higher tyre temperatures. They continued to stay out even as Norris and Ricciardo made their stops, the Aussie coming back out only just in front of Williams' Alex Albon forcing the McLaren driver to go defensive to retain the spot on cold tyres.
Ferrari responded to the developments by switching to Plan B which entailed pitting Leclerc from the lead on lap 23. Hamilton followed suit with hopes of pulling off the overcut on Perez, but while it initially paid off the Red Bull had a clear advantage on warmer tyres and soon swept past going into turn 4. Seconds later there was another safety car being deployed after Vettel hit the kerbs exiting turn 4, leaving the Aston pummelling the wall and scattering debris all over the track. The caution closed up the gap between Leclerc and Verstappen at the front while the timing enabled Russell to make a fortuitous pit stop and emerge in third ahead of the yet-to-stop Alonso followed by Perez, Hamilton, Kevin Magnussen (also yet to pay a call to pit lane) and the McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo.
Schumacher was lucky to avoid rear-ending a suddenly static Tsunoda before the safety car came in and the race resumed on lap 27, Leclerc initially struggling for pace on cold tyres that allowed Verstappen to try probing strikes into turn 1 and then turn 3, but the Ferrari held off the assault and was soon back up to proper operating temperature, pulling away before DRS activation became a factor, setting the fastest lap of the race so far for good measure. Perez had more luck picking off Alonso, with the Alpine starting to struggle on its old tyres which made him an easy target for Hamilton to slice past down the inside of the first corner on lap 31.
Magnussen was having more luck holding seventh place from the McLarens, until the Dane made a small error into the last corner which gave Norris the opportunity to make the pass at the start of lap 34. Ricciardo wasn't able to follow in his team mate's tyre marks for another two laps by which point the Haas was really struggling with tyre degradation.
Up the road, Hamilton was worried that Perez was moving further away from him. He was assured by the team that they were playing the long game and expecting the Red Bull to "overcook" its tyres and that the race would come back to them. In a similar vein, Russell was told not to destroy his tyres by fighting too hard to retain third place from Perez. "Not what I want to hear," the driver responded wryly, but minutes later he did indeed reluctantly concede the position.
More reliability problems seemed to be creeping in at Alpine with Ocon ordered to lift and coast by his race engineer - easier said than done in a tightly-packed midfield train of cars. But in fact the next retirement materialised elsewhere with the sudden demise of Verstappen's Red Bull. "I smell some weird fluid," he radioed even as the smoking RB18 lost all power on lap 38 and ground to a halt at turn 2. The team quickly reassured an understandably concerned Perez that the failure was not relevant to his car, although the Mexican's reply sounded doubtful. Considerate parking by the frustrated Dutchman allowed the retrieval to be carried out under a brief Virtual Safety Car, which Magnussen and Alonso used to make their long-awaited pit stops while Albon stayed out.
Racing resumed with Leclerc now enjoying a whopping 12s lead over Perez followed by Russell and Hamilton, Norris and Ricciardo, and Albon still ahead of Ocon, Stroll and Gasly. Bottas was on the cusp of points in 11th after surviving a battle with Stroll in which the Alfa Romeo had been squeezed out onto the gravel by the Aston; the Canadian already had a five second penalty to pay off for weaving back and forth down the straight.
Leclerc's victory was by now assured, with the Ferrari pit wall talking him out of making an extra pit stop in pursuit of the bonus point for fastest lap, which he already provisionally held. Perez was some way back but similarly untroubled as he cruised to second ahead of the two Mercedes drivers of Russell and Hamilton, the seven-time former champion complaining that the team had put him "in a really difficult position" behind his team mate. Norris and Ricciardo completed the top six with the rest of the points positions going to Ocon, Bottas, Gasly and Albon, after the Williams finally made its mandatory pit stop prior to starting the final lap.
Missing out this week were Guanyu Zhou, Lance Stroll, Haas pair Mick Schumacher and Kevin Magnussen, AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda and Williams' Nicholas Latifi, with Alonso the last of the runners after the Alpine was forced into making an additional late pit stop. The three retirements consisted of Verstappen, Vettel and Sainz. It's the second retirement in three races for Verstappen, who is now 46 points behind Leclerc and down to sixth in the drivers championship.