Verstappen and Leclerc may not be alone in Aus GP fight

Finley Crebolder
The Formula 1 paddock pre-race weekend. Australia, April 2022.

The scene in the Formula 1 paddock prior to the Australian Grand Prix. April 2022.

F1’s heading back down under, and on its return it seems all but certain that a new name will be added to the list of Australian GP winners.

The last time the sport raced at Albert Park back in 2019, Valtteri Bottas became the 2oth man to taste victory at the circuit, crossing the line ahead of Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

It goes without saying that, barring any chaos, the Finn won’t make it two from two now that he’s at Alfa Romeo, but his chances of doing so wouldn’t be that much better even if he was still driving for the German team.

That’s because, for the first time since 2013, Lewis Hamilton and co aren’t heading to Melbourne as frontrunners with Ferrari and Red Bull comfortably stronger than them in the first two rounds of the year.

Their respective charges have been led by Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, both of whom have one win apiece after two intense battles in the Middle East.

It’s the Monegasque who leads the standings ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz and the Dutchman, and another victory would give him a healthy lead over both.

He’ll need to be quicker than he’s been at the circuit in the past if he wishes to do so though, with him being out-qualified by his team-mate at the time on both occasions.

The man himself feels that he’s a far more mature and complete driver now than he was back then, and a dominant display would very much prove that.

Verstappen has a better record at the track than his rival, standing on the podium last time out, but the Dutchman won’t be satisfied with anything less than a win he very much needs given he retired from the season-opener.

Charles Leclerc just ahead of Max Verstappen. Jeddah March 2022.
Charles Leclerc just ahead of Max Verstappen during the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Jeddah March 2022.

The two spent much of their time in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia going wheel to wheel and swapping places. Such racing has been a rarity at Albert Park in the past, but thanks to some considerable layout changes and the new cars, we can expect to see more of the same.

The chicane at Turn 9 has been removed, allowing for a fourth (!) DRS zone to be added, and the track has been widened in numerous places, meaning cars will be able to maintain much higher speeds throughout the lap.

As if the prospect of more fireworks from Verstappen and Leclerc isn’t exciting enough, there’s also a good chance that they won’t be alone in their fight at the front if the last race weekend is anything to go by.

In Saudi Arabia, Sergio Perez enjoyed perhaps his best weekend since joining Red Bull, taking pole position and leading the race until a bit of bad luck in the form of a poorly timed Safety Car dropped him down to P4. Was that a flash in the pan or has he really stepped things up this year? What happens in Australia will answer that.

Carlos Sainz on the other hand has been beaten by Leclerc on Saturday and Sunday in both of the first two rounds. With Ferrari historically favouring having clear number one and number two drivers, the Spaniard needs to pick up the pace if he doesn’t want to become second fiddle to his team-mate.

The bare minimum both will be aiming for and expecting is the second row of the grid, because Mercedes don’t seem to be in a position to challenge either of the top two teams.

In all fairness, there were factors other than outright pace that contributed to Hamilton going out in Q1 and only finishing the race in P10 last time out. However, George Russell had a smooth weekend and still couldn’t get anywhere near the top four.

With the W13 slower than the frontrunners but faster than the midfield, the Brits could well end up spending the race battling one another should they both avoid issues. We’ve yet to see that since Russell joined, and it would be fascinating to see how it would play out and how Toto Wolff would handle it.

If they’re to face a challenge from behind, it will most likely come from Hamilton’s former team-mate and long-time rival, Fernando Alonso, and his team-mate Esteban Ocon.

The Frenchman finished as the ‘best of the rest’ in both qualifying and the race in Saudi Arabia while Alonso was set to score big points himself before an engine issue forced him to retire. Said engine has been changed for the upcoming round and he’ll be keen to make amends.

The two drivers treated us to a thrilling battle in the last race, but allowing them to go wheel to wheel may not be the best idea for the team with Alfa Romeo and Haas very much a threat.

Both Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen finished ahead of Ocon in Bahrain and could well have done so again in Saudi Arabia if not for a mechanical issue ending the former’s race and a Safety Car ruining the latter’s strategy.

The Finn did, of course, win the last race down under while the Dane’s only podium came there, so the Scandinavian pair are certainly ones to watch, especially with the Ferrari engine working so well.

The same can’t be said for the Red Bull power units that AlphaTauri are running, with engine failures causing Pierre Gasly to retire in Bahrain and costing Yuki Tsunoda the chance to start in Saudi Arabia.

There have been promising signs in terms of pace though, so if they can improve their reliability, they should be in or around the top 10 throughout the weekend.

Whether McLaren can do the same is less certain. The MCL36’s main weakness seems to be slow-speed corners, so the layout changes will undoubtedly favour them, but there are still some sections of the track where you’d imagine Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo will struggle.


Perhaps the only team more in need of a good result than Norris and co is Aston Martin, who spent the entirety of the first two weekends well outside the top 10.

Their chances will no doubt be helped by the return of Sebastian Vettel, a three-time winner at the track, but as good as he is, the German’s not a miracle worker, and it’s hard to see Lawrence Stroll’s team finding much joy in Oz.

The same can be said about Williams, with the two British outfits doomed to battling it out at the very back of the field.

On the bright side, with the track changes and cars that can follow one another much better than before, those battles and the ones ahead should produce some of the best racing the circuit’s seen in a long, long time. Bring it on.


Last-minute rescue mission prevents F1 freight crisis

F1's official freight partner DHL saved the day last weekend by rescuing the shipments of three teams that were doomed to not make it to Australia in time for the GP.