Australian GP: Sainz heads Ferrari 1-2 as Verstappen retires

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Ferrari SF-24. 24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images
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Carlos Sainz secured victory in the 2024 Australian Grand Prix ahead of Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc, after pole sitter and early leader Max Verstappen retired when a stuck brake caused a fire at the rear of the Red Bull.

It was also a strong day for McLaren, with Lando Norris taking the final spot on the podium and Oscar Piastri just missing out in fourth ahead of Sergio Perez in the sole remaining RB20 that was left still running on track.

Lewis Hamilton also failed to last the course when the Mercedes was forced to pull over on lap 17 having suffered engine failure, while his team mate George Russell dramatically crashed out on the final lap while battling with Fernando Alonso.

Round three of the 2024 Formula 1 world championship was the first to fully take place in the daytime, with the sunshine over Melbourne's Albert Park welcoming the cars to the gird. Max Verstappen led the way for Red Bull with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz alongside him on the front row, and Lando Norris found himself up in third place alongside Charles Leclerc after the overnight demotion of Sergio Perez due to a grid penalty for impeding in qualifying.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 leads at the start of the race.
24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Moy / XPB Images

Only 18 cars were on the grid with Zhou Guanyu starting from pit lane after his Sauber was damaged in qualifying, and Logan Sargeant having been withdrawn after having to hand over his chassis to Williams team mate Alex Albon. Most of the remaining cars were on medium tyres, with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg opting to start the race on sets of hard tyres and Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo breaking the other way on softs, as was Zhou.

The lights went out and it was an unusually clean start for everyone, with no change in the top five although George Russell succeeded in passing Perez for sixth, and Hamilton gained a place on the first lap to claw his way back into the top ten. DRS was enabled on lap two - earlier this year than in the past - and Sainz took immediate advantage to challenge Verstappen for the lead into turn 9, and pulled it off as the Dutch driver reported that he had 'lost the car' with the Red Bull feeling uncharacteristically loose.

That concern soon ramped up into full blown panic, with smoke visibly billowing from the rear of the car. "I have smoke, blue smoke, fire, fire!" Verstappen confirmed over the team radio, as first Norris and then increasing numbers of cars streamed past the stricken Red Bull. He made it back to pit lane but the rear brakes were indeed on fire, and there was nothing that the pit crew could do to fix the problem. Verstappen was out of the Grand Prix, his first retirement in two years since his previous early exit in Melbourne in 2022. "As soon as the lights went off the right brake stuck on," he told reporters. "The car was hard to drive from word go. Very snappy. If the brake is stuck on, that doesn't help!"

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 with a smoking rear brake that led to his retirement.
24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

His exit left Sainz with a lead of over almost two seconds from Norris followed by their respective team mates Charles Leclerc and Oscar Piastri. Russell maintained fifth from Perez followed by Lance Stroll, Yuki Tsunoda and Fernando Alonso, as Hamilton and the others who had started on soft tyres were forced into making early visits to pit lane for hard tyres, having gambled and lost in their hopes that the race would have an early safety car. Also in was Valtteri Bottas, and once again there was a problem changing the tyres on the Sauber which dropped the Finn to the back.

Even those at the front on mediums were soon ringing the changes, with Russell in on lap 9 and Piastri and Tsunoda in next time by in response. Sainz had no immediate plans to follow suit, having already extended his lead to over three seconds and talking of going long. Those running right behind him tried following suit, but Perez pitted on lap 14 coming back out just ahead of Hamilton, and the pair nearly ran into each other. Moments later their battle proved moot with Hamilton reporting a engine failure and having to pull the Mercedes over to the side of the track at turn 10 on lap 17.

That triggered a brief Virtual Safety Car which was perfect timing for Alonso to make his own delayed pit stop and a contrary change onto the mediums having started on the hards. Only he and Hulkenberg were on that compound as the race got back up to speed, with Sainz continuing to hold the lead from Leclerc. Piastri had jumped Norris for third, and the brace of McLarens were followed by Alonso, Russell, Perez, Stroll and Tsunoda with Alex Albon rounding out the top ten in his borrowed chassis, the day after his birthday.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB20 and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W15.
24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Perez showed that Red Bull still had the pace if no longer the numbers, dispatching Russell for sixth using DRS on the run down to turn 9 on lap 21 leaving him with five seconds to make up to catch Alonso. Most cars were now holding station in a bid to manage higher-than-expected tyre degradation, but Hulkenberg was ushered past his Haas team mate Kevin Magnussen to make best use of his mediums while they lasted. He immediately set about catching Albon, who pitted for a second and final time on lap 28. McLaren also issued team orders to put Norris ahead of Piastri as McLaren's best bet to apply pressure to the two Ferraris ahead, while Alonso found himself obliged to cede fifth place to Perez despite having the newer tyres of the pair. However the Red Bull was itself soon struggling on the ageing hard compound, leaving the door open for the Aston Martin to come back into contention.

Leclerc was also losing time with his front left falling away, and he was on pit lane for service on lap 35. Crucially, the Monegasque succeeded in coming out right in front of the Perez/Alonso squabble. Red Bull called Perez in next time by and he dropped to seventh behind Russell as a consequence, but Sainz and his backing boy band duo of McLaren drivers stayed out. There was more pit lane drama at Sauber, with Zhou stationary in the box for an extended period with overheating problems dropping him a lap off the lead and circulating at the back of the field along with his team mate.

Piastri was now struggling as his tyres fell away, and a lock-up in turn 13 on lap 39 saw him run wide and resulted in a summons from the McLaren pit wall to present himself for service. It wasn't one of the swiftest, costing him about four seconds. Norris was in next time by for a quicker stop, allowing him to resume behind Leclerc in third now well ahead of Piastri who was busy finding his way back past Alonso for fourth on lap 42. The Aston Martin then dived down pit lane, with Sainz also making his own final pit stop at the same time and easily able to retain the lead upon his return.

George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W15 makes a pit stop.
24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

With the strategy all played out and ten laps remaining, Sainz was able to manage a lead of more than five seconds over Leclerc, with Norris comfortably in third ahead of Piastri. Perez was no threat in fifth followed by Alonso, Russell, Stroll, Tsunoda and Hulkenberg in the remaining points positions, and Kevin Magnussen in eleventh having muscled his way past Albon. Of the front runners, Russell had the freshest tyres but could find no way past Alonso, the wily old veteran using all his years of experience to keep the Mercedes at bay.

The pressure built until the final lap, when Russell lost the rear into turn 6 and went into the gravel which sent the Mercedes into a heavy impact with the barrier. It left the car on its side, although Russell was on the team radio to confirm he was okay as the race ended under a second VSC. In parc ferme, a jubilant Ferrari duly celebrated their 1-2 success and their first victory since Sainz won in Singapore, while Haas were boosted by Magnussen's promotion to the top ten as a consequence of Russell's accident, leaving Albon just missing out as he capped a torrid weekend for Williams in P11.

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