Verstappen wins in Australia after chaotic late restart

(L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 battle for position at the start of the race. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images
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Max Verstappen overcame some early teething problems and a disastrous accident-strewn late red flag restart to deliver a third successive Red Bull victory in 2023 with a win over Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in Australia.

Fernando Alonso continued his run of podium appearances for Aston Martin with third place. That was despite being involved in a collision with Carlos Sainz at the restart, after race control rolled back the order to before the accident.

Sainz was penalised for the collision dropping him out of the top ten. His Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc had already spun out out of the race triggering the first of two early safety cars, with Williams' Alex Albon the cause of a second.

The latter caution became an early red flag that had compromised George Russell's race. He had succeeded in taking the lead from Verstappen at the start but subsequently suffered an engine fire shortly after the first restart.

George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 leads at the start of the race. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

After two days of cloudy, cool and intermittently wet conditions in Melbourne, blue skies and sunshine were the order of the afternoon on Sunday as 18 cars and drivers headed to the grid for the start of the Australian Grand Prix. Max Verstappen led the way ahead of Mercedes pair George Russell and Lewis Hamilton with Fernando Alonso following in fourth in the Aston Martin. With the exception of Alpine pair Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon on softs, all the front runners had opted to start the race on the medium compound. Missing in action were Verstappen's Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez and Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas, who were both starting from pit lane after the teams made overnight changes to address problems experienced in qualifying.

When the lights went out, Russell got the best start and forced his way ahead of Verstappen who was struggling for grip. The Red bull driver tried to respond by sweeping around the outside of turn 1 but that didn't work, and it opened the door for Hamilton to pounce and make it an immediate Mercedes 1-2 despite Verstappen's protestations over the radio that Hamilton had pushed him wide. Carlos Sainz managed to pick off Alonso for fourth and even had a nibble at Verstappen, while Alex ALbon took advantage of Williams' best qualifying of the season to date to jump up to sixth after contact between Charles Leclerc and Lance Stroll.

This proved to be a disaster for the Monegasque, whose car was tipped into a spin sending him off into the gravel from which there was no return. This necessitated a brief safety car while the stricken Ferrari was retrieved by the safety crew, Leclerc watching on in despair as he suffered his second retirement in three races.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF-23 retired from the race. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images

It wasn't long before the race was back underway on lap 4 with Russell and Hamilton ensuring that Verstappen remained bottled up in third followed by Sainz, Alonso, Albon, Stroll, and Gasly, with Haas' Nico Hulkenberg and AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda rounding out the top ten for now, many of those further back having made an early pit stop to free up their hands when it came to race strategy from this point on.

The top three were running close together as they pulled away from Sainz. It meant Hamilton and Verstappen both had DRS when it was enabled on lap 6, piling the pressure on Russell who was at a clear disadvantage. "You're asking me to manage [the tyres] when I'm being attacked by my own team mate!" he complained to the Mercedes pit wall. Before that battle could play out there was a second outing for the safety car after Albon lost the rear end of the Williams FW45 and crashed into the barrier at turn 7.

Russell and Sainz both responded by pitting to take on hard tyres, but the tactic misfired when the race was red flagged due to the condition of the barriers and the amount of gravel thrown onto the track by Albon's impact. It meant everyone returned to pit lane, where those that had not yet stopped - like Hamilton, Verstappen, Alonso, Stroll, Gasly and Hulkenberg - would now be able to make a free tyre change of their own before the race resumed. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff's verdict of this outcome was immediate: "Sorry George, that's screwed us," he said, Russell having dropped to seventh due to making the initial early pit stop.

Alexander Albon (THA) Williams Racing FW45 crashed out of the race. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

Everyone was now on hard tyres, with the exception of Williams' Logan Sargeant and AlphaTauri's Nyck de Vries. The stoppage was relatively brief and the race resumed with a standing start on lap 10. Verstappen complained that Hamilton was dropping too far behind the safety car heading to the grid, resulting in some near misses as the compression rippled through the field behind him, meaning the restart procedure was placed under review even as the lights went out.

Hamilton got another good start while Verstappen once again struggled but still managed to fight off Alonso, while Stroll dropped places allowing Gasly to jump up to fourth and Russell make up two places to fifth. Further back, de Vries moved across the front of Ocon and clipped the front right, sending the AlphaTauri running wide and dropping him to P17.

DRS had been unavailable for the restart, but as soon as it was enabled on lap 12 Verstappen was able to take full advantage to dispatch Hamilton with contemptuous ease to seize the lead for the first time. Less than a lap later he was already two seconds ahead. There was better news for Russell who successfully leaned on Gasly and managed to take fourth place from the Alpine on lap 14. He was already setting his sights on catching Alonso ahead of him, leaving Gasly falling back and struggling to ward off Stroll and Sainz. Further back, Perez - having got boxed in at the restart - now picked off Sargeant for 15th place and then swiftly forced his way past Kevin Magnussen in the Haas as his comeback drive finally took flight. By lap 17 he had caught and passed Zhou Guanyu, despite suffering another lock-up in the process reminiscent of his qualifying woes the previous day.

The man really on the move was Alonso, who laid down purple sectors as he hunted down Hamilton for second place. But it was Hamilton's team mate who was genuinely feeling the heat, as the back of Russell's Mercedes erupted in flame from a massive power unit failure. This immediately triggered a Virtual Safety Car, as Russell was forced to pull over to the side of the track along the main straight, having decided not to bring an active fire down into the heart of pit lane. "When it’s not your day, it’s not your day," he posted on Twitter once everything had cooled down.

George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 retired from the race. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

The VSC soon ended and the race resumed on lap 19, with Hamilton using the opportunity to jump out of DRS range of Alonso but sounding concerned over the team radio. "Alonso is pretty quick, I don't know if these tyres will make it to the end," he reported to the Mercedes pit wall, just 11 laps into the stint, later adding: "I don't feel it will go all the way." Meanwhile Perez continued to press his advantage, snatching 11th from Ocon on lap 21 and immediately joining the fight between Tsunoda and Oscar Piastri over the last of the top ten points positions. Both presented little problem for the rampant Bull, and Perez was now up to ninth and charging.

Also on the move was Sainz, with a late dummy on Gasly through turn 3 on lap 25 successfully putting the Ferrari back into fourth place, although Gasly was able to stay close to the back of the Ferrari for now. Further back, Gasly's team mate Ocon put an extraordinary amount of trust in a rookie's driving ability with a forceful move on Piastri on lap 26, and the Alpine then swatted aside Tsunoda to make it into the points. That allowed Piastri to have a go himself at the Japanese driver, and he duly picked up the spot on lap 30.

With the halfway point of the race now behind them, Verstappen's lead over Hamilton was up to more than eight seconds. Alonso was still just out of DRS range of Hamilton in third followed by Sainz, Gasly, Stroll, Hulkenberg, Norris, Perez and Ocon. Piastri was running in 11th followed by Tsunoda, Zhou, Magnussen, Sargeant and Valtteri Bottas in 16th, with de Vries still running last following the earlier three retirements (Russell, Albon and Leclerc).

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

"[Alonso] is trying to push you to use your tyres, don't fall for it," Hamilton's race engineer Peter Bonnington told his driver, but Hamilton remained anxious about the Aston's sniping attacks: "They can't be on the same strategy as us mate," he replied on lap 34. Despite Bono's reassurances, Hamilton was indeed becoming something of a bottleneck for the train of cars building up behind him. "These guys are quick mate," Hamilton concluded, and he was finally forced to rise to the bait and turn up the power to set some quick lap times and pull four tenths away from Alonso, regardless of the impact on tyre longevity. "There's not way I'm losing out to him," a feisty Hamilton declared. But even as he pushed, Alonso countered with fastest laps of his own.

With less than 20 laps remaining, no one had the option to make a new pit stop for fresh tyres at this point without suffering a catastrophic loss of positions, because the field was still so closely packed together. With the exception of Verstappen, who was serenely cruising away at the front, the gaps between the top ten cars on track were surprisingly tight, as illustrated by Perez being able to sail past Norris for P8 on lap 44, and then Hulkenberg for seventh moments later. Norris likewise tried to take the fight to the Haas going through turn 11 on lap 49 but was initially warded off; Norris kept up the pressure and on the next lap he went side-by side with Hulkenberg through turn 13, managing to force the German driver wide to finally stamp his claim on eighth.

At the front, Verstappen had lost three seconds after going in to turn 13 after locking up the front left and running too deep into the corner and off onto the grass. No great harm was done - but it was a wake up call to Red Bull that nothing could be taken for advantage, even this deep into the race.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 in the pits while the race is stopped. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Jus when it looked as though the race was winding down to a sedate conclusion, the safety car was out for a late encore appearance as Kevin Magnussen pulled over to the side of the track. he had suffered right rear suspension damage from hitting the barrier that had ripped the tyre carcass off the wheel rim, scattering debris onto the racing line. It looked as though the race would end under yellow, but there was general surprise when the colours changed to red for a second time this afternoon. Suddenly it was all game on again, with two laps to go at the pending standing restart and no DRS on tap.

When the race got underway from the grid for the third time today with everyone having changed to soft tyres, all eyes were on whether Verstappen could finally put together a decent launch for the first time, or whether Hamilton could snatch an unlikely late victory. Taking up a defensive posture, this time Verstappen nailed it and Hamilton had no chance to take advantage of the situation. But behind them there was an outbreak of utter mayhem, with multiple collisions radially rewriting the order.

Alonso had tried attacking Hamilton, but had instead been tapped into a spin by Sainz which plunged him out of the top ten. Perez ended up running through the gravel in avoidance and Stroll was also caught up in the mayhem, while the two Alpines had succeeded in taking each other out. Further back, de Vries collected Sargeant and both were out of the race. The surviving cast continued touring around, but the result now hinged on how race control decided to implement the rules which was primarily a question of whether the cars had managed to complete a full sector after the restart before the latest red flag.

Esteban Ocon (FRA) Alpine F1 Team A523 and Pierre Gasly (FRA) Alpine F1 Team A523 at the second restart of the race - Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Alfa Romeo F1 Team C43 and Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19 avoid an errant tyre. 02.04.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

As things stood when the cars returned to pit lane, Verstappen was the winner from Hamilton and Sainz, with Hulkenberg fourth, ahead of Tsunoda, Norris, Piastri, Zhou, Bottas and Perez. But race control ordered that a rolling restart should be undertaken according to the previous grid order - except for those damaged cars such as both Alpines now unable to take part - and then rerun the final lap behind a safety car. The icing on this deeply confusing cake was a five second penalty levied on Sainz for causing the initial collision with Alonso, dropping him out of the points entirely.

Once the final lap had was completed, it confirmed Verstappen's victory with Hamilton in second. Alonso was restored to third followed by Stroll, Perez (who also got the point for setting the fastest lap), Norris, Hulkenberg and Piastri, the Aussie claiming his maiden championship points ahead of Zhou and Tsunoda in ninth and tenth. But such was the confusion after the chequered flag that almost any twists and turns could yet be in store when the protests and recriminations fly during the rest of the Antipodean evening.

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