Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc took full control of the 2022 Formula 1 title race at the Australian Grand Prix as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen suffered his second retirement in three races.
Here are our conclusions from Albert Park…
Time to take Ferrari seriously
Across the opening two race weekends there was a temptation to judge Verstappen’s results relative to those of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, who many felt would soon overcome their issues to emerge as Red Bull’s main threat this season.
That line of thinking was born out of a hangover of the titanic battle of last year and also a fundamental lack of faith in Ferrari, who have flattered to deceive at various points since their last title triumph in 2008.
To continue to dismiss Ferrari after this weekend is to ignore the evidence of your own eyes, for Leclerc is daring to run away with the 2022 World Championship.
— Charles Leclerc (@Charles_Leclerc) April 10, 2022
With two victories and a P2 in the opening three races, Leclerc already has a greater points advantage than Verstappen or Hamilton enjoyed at any stage of 2021 – 34 ahead of second-placed George Russell and, more significantly, 46 in front of Verstappen.
By his own admission, Albert Park had been an area of weakness for Leclerc in the past with the Monegasque struggling on his two previous visits to Melbourne in 2018 and ’19.
That he returned to Australia to deliver by far the most dominant of his four grand prix victories to date, complete with pole position and fastest lap, was a reflection of his growth as a driver, despite his rejecting of talk of Leclerc 2.0.
He, of course, will argue the driver we are seeing in 2022 has always been there, that the difference this year is he now has the car for his class to come to the fore, and it is clear that in the consistent, reliable and driveable F1-75 Ferrari have a car for all seasons.
Leclerc’s constant pushing of the team to protect the point for fastest lap in the closing stages following Verstappen’s second DNF of the season revealed an awareness of the scale of the opportunity opening up before him and a determination to rub Red Bull’s faces in the mud.
If he can extend the gap to Verstappen beyond the 50-point mark – the equivalent of two race wins – at Ferrari’s first home race of 2022 at Imola, it will be tough to catch him.
Red Bull need to get their act together fast
“We’re already miles behind,” was Verstappen’s frank assessment of the title race following his latest retirement. “I don’t even want to think about the championship fight at the moment, I think it’s more important to finish races.”
Gutted. Very frustrating to end another race like this as we were looking at an easy P2 😤
Congrats to @SChecoPerez on scoring another podium. 💪
We have to work hard the coming days to get on top of things and improve for Imola. pic.twitter.com/6hEUlkvwZK
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) April 10, 2022
With Red Bull and AlphaTauri struggling for reliability at the start of the season – Verstappen went into the race aware of an issue after some activity around his car on the grid – it is increasingly obvious the handover from Honda to Red Bull Powertrains has not been as seamless as anticipated.
After the race, team principal Christian Horner trotted out the usual cliché that it is far easier to make a fast car reliable than it is to make a reliable car fast – but, worryingly, Red Bull were well beaten by Ferrari even before the demise of Verstappen, who by his own admission had long settled for second place.
Leclerc’s advantage of almost three tenths was the biggest qualifying margin between the front-running cars so far in 2022, with Verstappen powerless to prevent the Ferrari pulling away at the start and both Safety Car restarts.
Still without a pole position this year, Verstappen has admitted it is “not very enjoyable” to drive the RB18 in qualifying trim and his lack of confidence in the car was most pronounced at the penultimate corner in Melbourne.
After spinning there in the final practice session, he locked up on his first Q3 attempt and was noticeably cautious at Turn 13 on his next lap – bleeding time to Leclerc in the fight for pole – before locking up again at the same spot early in the race.
Having been the only one with the talent to tame the previous-era Red Bulls, it is strange to see Verstappen struggling so visibly to be at one with his car, which is said to be among those struggling most to reach the minimum weight limit.
“It’s pretty frustrating and unacceptable,” Verstappen said of his situation.
He needs Red Bull to respond quickly and effectively if his reign as World Champion is to last more than one year.
Sainz suffers the curse of the wingman
The racing gods dictate that drivers cast in the dreaded number-two role can’t have too many nice things, only brief and intermittent periods of respite.
The unwritten rule of motor racing was evident most recently in Jeddah where Sergio Perez, having claimed his maiden pole position and comfortably led the first stint, saw his race suddenly turned upside-down by a Safety Car at precisely the wrong moment for his victory chances.
It felt that way too for Carlos Sainz in Melbourne, where the red flag was waved just before he completed his first lap of Q3, sending his entire weekend in the wrong direction.
After being within a tenth or two of Leclerc in Q1 and Q2, nothing went right from that point for Sainz, who was forced to compromise his tyre preparation after a start-up problem and promptly qualified ninth, more than 1.5 seconds off his team-mate.
A late change of steering wheel on the grid potentially contributed to Sainz’s car entering anti-stall off the start line.
And in that lap-and-a-half before his race-ending spin into the gravel – as he was swarmed by a bunch of AlphaTauris, Alfa Romeos and Haas’s – it was like watching Valtteri Bottas on his very worst days as a Mercedes driver.
Sainz will almost certainly win races this season. He is too talented not to, even if he isn’t quite of the standard of a potential World Champion.
But his first DNF in 32 races, leaving him 38 points behind Leclerc, has come at a terrible time and should confirm what the opening two races had strongly indicated – that Sainz will be supporting his team-mate’s title challenge in 2022.
Carlos didn’t choose the wingman life; the wingman life chose him.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) April 10, 2022
Vettel adds to Aston Martin’s list of problems
Not since their earliest days as Force India have Team Silverstone looked so utterly hopeless.
After failing to score a point in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the stage seemed set for Sebastian Vettel, returning from his Covid-enforced absence, to save Aston Martin’s season, using the guidance and expertise of a four-time World Champion to restore a sense of direction.
But Vettel is not the driver he once was – he hasn’t been for almost four years now – and rather than helping to solve the team’s problems he merely added to them on Aston Martin’s weekend from hell.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) April 10, 2022
The presence of the owner’s son, Lance Stroll, in one of the cars totally undermines the progress Aston purport to be making, yet if it is to be accepted that Stroll will never lose his self-destructive side it is surely not unreasonable to expect more from a driver as decorated as his team-mate.
Vettel was fortunate to even set a time in qualifying – Stroll’s collision with Nicholas Latifi causing a red flag delay, affording Aston more time to repair his car – after crashing at Turn 10 in FP3, ensuring he began the race having completed only 26 laps up to that point.
He very nearly didn’t make it beyond Lap 10 – running wide and skipping through the gravel at the same spot where Stroll had crashed on Saturday morning – before Albert Park finally put him out of his misery 13 laps later with a spin into the wall on the exit of Turn 4.
All the evidence since late 2018 suggests Vettel is not a driver a team can rely on to work wonders in an underperforming car.
Which begs the question: if the situation doesn’t improve soon, how long will Vettel last at Aston Martin before patience runs out on both sides?
Having started late, don’t be too surprised if Seb doesn’t finish the season.
First hints of frustration from Hamilton?
It was at the Australian GP in 2010 that Fernando Alonso explained the lay of the land, in no uncertain terms, to Ferrari.
Utterly aghast that team-mate Felipe Massa wasn’t ordered to move aside for Alonso to complete his recovery from a first-corner spin to the podium, the two-time World Champion took steps to ensure it would never – ever – happen again.
If you want to achieve anything at all this season, he effectively told the team, you’d better back me.
Four months later at Hockenheim came the infamous “Fernando is faster than you line” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hamilton has always lacked the political punch power of his former team-mate, but might he be minded to have a similar conversation with Mercedes in the aftermath of Melbourne?
With Mercedes striking a more workable balance between porpoising and performance at Albert Park, Hamilton was the slightly faster of the Silver Arrows and after outqualifying Russell held a gap of two-and-a-half seconds over his team-mate prior to pitting on Lap 22.
Vettel’s crash a lap later gifted Russell a free stop and elevated him ahead of Hamilton, who after catching his team-mate appeared to express his frustration with the team with five laps remaining.
“You guys put me in a really difficult position,” he said over team radio as he ran within two seconds of Russell.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 10, 2022
Hamilton later played down the significance of his message (well he would, wouldn’t he?), claiming it was related to the need to cool an overheating engine, and unedited footage of his radio confirms he was encouraged by the team to lift and coast to manage temperatures towards the end.
Yet even for a driver with a history of emotional radio transmissions, the confrontational nature of his language – the idea that you let me down – was curious in the context of Mercedes’ troubled start to the season.
With Russell on course for his first Mercedes podium and viewed by the team as the heir to Hamilton, it would have been cruel in the extreme – and incredibly damaging to the younger man’s confidence – to take third place away.
Ask yourself this, however: if it was still trusty ol’ Bottas in that car, would Mercedes have found a way to get Hamilton in front?
If nothing else, for Hamilton perhaps this was yet another little reminder of how drastically different his world looks in 2022.