Australian Grand Prix conclusions: Lewis Hamilton sabbatical? Carlos Sainz’s next move

Oliver Harden
Carlos Sainz admiring his trophy after winning the Australian GP with PlanetF1.com's conclusions banner

Carlos Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race since the start of 2023, triumphing in Singapore and Australia

Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz claimed his first victory of the F1 2024 season at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Sainz took the lead shortly before Red Bull’s Max Verstappen suffered his first DNF in two years, with the Spaniard joined on the podium by Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc in second and McLaren’s Lando Norris in third. On a weekend Lewis Hamilton’s confidence in Mercedes hit rock bottom, here are our conclusions from Albert Park…

Conclusions from the 2024 Australian Grand Prix

Project Audi? Carlos Sainz can’t let his peak years go to waste

This was a classic Carlos Sainz drive, an irresistible cocktail of intelligence, spirit and defiance.

The intelligent part?

That came in qualifying, when Sainz simply adapted better than Leclerc to the different conditions from FP3, and the effect on the tricky soft tyre, to push Verstappen hard for pole position.

The spirit?

That was found in his post-qualifying admission that he had spent “a lot of days in bed” since his appendix surgery, openly admitting that he was far from operating at 100 per cent yet still driving with as much commitment as ever.

Yet defiance is what Sainz does best.

It has been a theme of his entire F1 career, from standing up to his boy wonder team-mate at Toro Rosso in 2015 to finding his way to a Ferrari drive just a couple of years after being released by Renault.

Underestimate him at your peril, it is often said.

Yet still they keep on doing it – teams, pundits, the media – even when his reputation has never been greater in the afterglow of Monza/Singapore 2023 and Melbourne 2024.

Since it was announced last month that he will leave Ferrari at the end of this year, the incoming Audi project has been regarded as the natural next step for Sainz – an opportunity, as he enters his 30s, to lead a full-blown factory team with the might of a major manufacturer behind it.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a marriage made in heaven.

Except for the fact that Audi won’t arrive until 2026, will almost certainly require some time to emerge as a competitive force and the team’s current incarnation as Sauber is no self-respecting F1 driver’s idea of a soft landing.

Despite the hoards of people – including his own father – eagerly nudging him in that direction, there seems to be a reticence on Sainz’s part to snap up the Sauber/Audi opportunity and the sense that, ideally, he would prefer a team whose victory prospects are more immediate.

Red Bull, maybe, if the unthinkable happens and Verstappen leaves? Mercedes, if both Andrea Kimi Antonelli and Fernando Alonso are deemed, for different reasons, to be too risky?

Or perhaps even Aston Martin, if Alonso chooses to retire or Mercedes do decide to dance with the devil after all?

In such a potentially volatile market with so many unknowns and unexpected opportunities likely to open up, signing for Audi would be the semi-retirement option, committing to the labour of building up a new team over several years with no guarantee that he will ever see the rewards.

It would amount to a potential waste of his peak years when, on the evidence since mid-2023, he still has more to offer in a leading car.

With Sainz now performing at such a consistently high level, each of those teams should finally be taking notice and all would be lucky to have him, Audi perhaps the luckiest of all.

The secret to stop being undervalued, underestimated and overlooked so easily?

Be so good that you can’t be ignored.

Should Lewis Hamilton take a sabbatical for the rest of 2024?

Always take note of the post-FP2 reaction from Lewis Hamilton, for it is then – and only then – that he provides a window into his true feelings.

It has been that way for more than two years now, Hamilton getting the frustration out of his system on a Friday afternoon before finding it deep within himself to recalibrate his expectations for the remainder of the weekend, returning to the paddock with a more optimistic outlook from Saturday onwards.

Yet no matter what he might say after qualifying and the race, no matter how much belief and trust he claims to have in the team, it is invariably on a Friday when the mask drops ever so briefly.

There you’ll find the most accurate gauge of his mood and a golden little glimpse into what he’s really thinking.

At this point it has become a well-established routine, which, when you think of it like that, is part of the problem.

With Mercedes’ troubles extending into a third season, and the little flashes of hope increasingly fleeting, there is more than a touch of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda years about this now, that no matter what they do or what they try there is no clear way out.

You might have thought his impending move to Ferrari for 2025 may have numbed the pain slightly – I’m out of here soon anyway, so why should I care? – yet on the evidence of this week’s visit to Hamilton’s honesty corner it remains as raw as ever.

“I obviously don’t feel great,” he said on Friday evening at Albert Park. “We had one of the worst sessions I’ve had for a long time.

“I feel the least confident I’ve ever felt with this car.”

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Lewis Hamilton now finally has a chance to escape the ghosts of Abu Dhabi 2021

This weekend, though, there was no overnight transformation as the misery kept on coming, his latest limp Q2 exit on Saturday – the sight of him walking bewildered down the pit lane halfway through qualifying with his helmet still on is a familiar one these days – followed by an engine failure just 16 laps into the race.

Just how much more of this can he take?

He answered that question pretty plainly with his February 1 bombshell, of course, but as his Mercedes career drifts aimlessly towards its inevitable conclusion is there an argument that he should remove himself from this situation entirely and get out now?

Hamilton’s switch to Ferrari, coming just five months after he signed a new two-year contract extension with Mercedes, was described as an act of selfishness in some quarters, yet perhaps the time has come at last for a little self-preservation to kick in.

With the rot setting in, still unable to trouble the podium positions even on a day Verstappen failed to finish, there have been occasional hints over the last couple of years of Mercedes’ lack of performance dragging Hamilton – a diminished figure this side of Abu Dhabi 2021 – down too.

And with little to be salvaged from this season already, could this be the ideal opportunity for him – now 39, remember – to step away and reset before beginning the final chapter?

More than once since his F1 comeback Alonso has commented on how beneficial he found his sabbatical, allowing him to escape the torture of his talent and career wasting away at McLaren before returning refreshed and revitalised in 2021 after two years spent breathing fresh air.

After 18 relentless years on the road – the longest unbroken stretch by any driver in F1 history – and 21 races of this season still to run, Hamilton might just find that stepping away for a few months takes years off him, cleansing the soul ahead of his new life with Ferrari.

The W15 and all its woes? Leave that for someone else (Mick?) to worry about.

Let’s end this section with the very words used by this column last summer, when it had already become clear that joining Ferrari was Hamilton’s only hope of a remotely dignified end to his career.

Should happen, won’t happen.

Max Verstappen’s DNF has saved F1 from a damning statistic

When Verstappen broke Sebastian Vettel’s record for the most consecutive race victories at Monza last September, some thought – hoped – it would stand the test of time.

Yet there he was just six months later in Melbourne on the verge of doing it again.

F1 and the FIA has a lot to thank Red Bull’s rear brake issue for as another perfect 10 for Verstappen, so soon after the last, would have plunged the sport into a deep state of introspection just three races into the new season.

Records like this, after all, are meant to stand for years on end, not a matter of months.

And it would have been a horrendous reflection of how catastrophically uncompetitive F1 has become in this era had Verstappen effortlessly reeled off another 10 straight wins, matching his own record at the earliest opportunity after his last run had ended.

The true extent of Verstappen’s dominance somehow hits home hardest on days like this, the sight of a different winner now made to feel like an event, a novelty.

A single win for Ferrari, of course, does not magically solve all the sport’s problems.

And with still no sign of an attempt to slow down Red Bull – isn’t this a very odd time for F1 to get squeamish about targeting dominant teams with rule changes? – there is every chance that Verstappen, as in the aftermath of Singapore 2023, will simply start a new winning run as if this little blip never even happened.

A glimpse at the calendar tells us the next 10 races – starting with Suzuka, the race where Verstappen’s last winning streak began – take us up to the Hungarian Grand Prix on July 21.

He couldn’t, could he?

Let’s very much hope, for the sport’s sake, that he does not.

Did Fernando Alonso brake test George Russell? One thing is clear…

Nothing puts the fear of God into a racing driver quite like a crash that leaves them stranded in the middle of the track.

First comes the stillness as the initial accident stops, then the silence as they sit there helpless, praying that everything doesn’t suddenly turn black.

It wasn’t difficult to work out which specific incidents were on George Russell’s mind as he sat in the line of fire at the end of the race demanding an immediate red flag over team radio: his voice gripped by panic, his body braced for the hit.

The incident soon descended into a debate about brake testing, with Alonso penalised heavily for what the stewards described as “potentially dangerous driving.”

It takes a brave set of stewards to level an accusation of dangerous driving against a two-time World Champion – especially when Alonso, among the craftiest racers in F1, has long been known to place a greater value than most on using turbulent air to his advantage in both defence (against Hamilton at Hungary 2021) and attack (the opening lap of the 2013 Spanish GP).

That conversation will continue and Alonso will doubtless continue to argue, with quite some justification, that he is big and old enough by now to drive each corner as he sees fit.

The most pressing issue here, however, is that the changes made to Albert Park’s layout two years ago have given birth to arguably the most dangerous corner on the current calendar.

Russell’s Mercedes was the second car in as many years to be spat back on to the track after hitting the barrier at the new-look Turn 6 – considerably faster than before and now with a blind entry – after Alex Albon’s Williams was fired on to the racing line in a cloud of dust at the same spot last year.

The nature of the corner, as the last true turn before a flat-out DRS blast between the walls, also encourages the drivers to take huge risks on entry in an attempt to maximise speed on to the straight.

Which potentially played its part in Albon (more on him shortly) getting it so wrong on Friday, bottoming out over the kerb before bouncing into one wall and then the other like an F1 pinball.

Most of the changes made to the Melbourne circuit have made little to no difference beyond bringing it in line with the Bakus and Jeddahs of this world, but this one is for the worse.

Reverting Turn 6 to its former profile is a must for next season.

James Vowles’ boldness will not be without some blowback

Unfortunate.

That’s the only word to describe the events at Williams over the Australian Grand Prix weekend.

In recent years several teams have started the season with a severe shortage of spare parts, anxious that one too many incidents in the first set of flyaway races could put their very participation in doubt, and invariably they get away with it.

Not Williams, though, not on this occasion.

With the knowledge that his team are lacking a spare chassis at the start of this season, might Albon – hailed as the team leader these days – have driven with more caution and responsibility in the opening practice session on Friday, especially at the very corner where he crashed out after a similar unforced error last year?

This episode did not reflect well on him and here was a missed opportunity to teach Albon some discipline – make a mistake, pay the price – yet in choosing to place him in Logan Sargeant’s car for the rest of the weekend James Vowles, the Williams team principal, proved that he has the balls to go along with his brains.

We knew before, from his “Valtteri, it’s James” radio messages in his Mercedes days, that Vowles has the courage of his convictions and is ready and willing to justify his decisions in a transparent manner.

And even though the decision to take Sargeant out for no fault of his own seemed painfully short-sighted and against all sporting decency, once Vowles had once again dusted off his best Gareth Southgate impression and fronted up to the media to explain his logic in that intelligent, reasonable, eloquent way of his, it was difficult to dispute.

Indeed, it was tempting to picture Bottas marching into a Mercedes debrief back in the day, fully intending to give the strategy team a piece of his mind after yet another team order, only for Vowles to dazzle him with all manner of statistics and percentages justifying the call.

“Oh. Well,” a stunned Bottas might’ve said, with that breathy chuckle of his. “Can’t really argue with that then, can I?”

If a team boss is prepared to make a decision of such magnitude, however, it simply must pay off.

And after Albon only scraped to 11th in Sargeant’s car, Vowles will now have to deal with the inevitable blowback over whether all this was really worth the hassle.

The decision to bench Sargeant, undermining Vowles’ own extensive efforts to make a competent F1 driver out of him over the last 12 months, not only risks destroying the driver himself but alienating that entire side of the Williams garage, the mechanics and engineers whose weekend also came to an abrupt early end on Friday.

For a member of the new breed of emotionally intelligent team bosses, it is a curious move to so willingly risk creating an inter-team divide – splitting the garage down the middle between the Albon and Sargeant sides – and a resentment that might not be so easy to cure.

And what of the consequences for F1 itself?

Much was made of Sargeant becoming the sport’s first American driver in 16 years in 2023, the same year F1 held three races across the USA for the first time in Miami, Austin and Las Vegas – both hugely symbolic landmarks in the sport’s long and painful campaign to crack America.

American sports enthusiasts – and, yes, investors too – are fiercely protective of their own, especially so in sporting arenas considered uncharted territory (the achievements in previous eras of Phil Hill, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue and Peter Revson notwithstanding).

It was unfortunate, again, for F1’s aspirations in the USA that the driver to miss out had to be the American.

And coming so soon after paying spectators were turfed out of the grandstands late at night by police in Vegas in November, it will only crystallise the lingering suspicion that F1 is interested only in America’s money and very little else.

More than anything, it is unfortunate that after all the fine work Vowles has done in dragging Williams kicking and screaming into the 2020s since the start of last season, it is this decision for which he may ultimately be remembered.

Certainly, it will be fascinating to watch the reception Vowles receives when he is introduced to the crowds in Sargeant’s home state of Florida at the Miami Grand Prix six weeks from now…

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