Max Verstappen won the Australian Grand Prix after initially trailing the Mercedes team-mates in a race that saw three red flags, including one on the penultimate lap that led to confusion over the sport’s regulations.
In a stop-start grand prix at the Albert Park circuit, the reigning World Champion was made to work for it at the start as first George Russell and then Lewis Hamilton led the race.
But once Verstappen was ahead, passing Hamilton on lap 12, it looked to be game over as the championship leader built up a nine-second lead only for a late red flag – the second of the day – to throw in a lot more drama.
Verstappen survived that restart but many behind him did not, including both Alpine drivers and, initially, the Aston Martin pair. That brought out a third red flag and another restart – sort of.
After a lot of confusion about what the rules say, Race Control opted run the final lap behind the Safety Car based on the order at the start of lap 57 minus the cars too damaged to continue.
Verstappen won the race while Hamilton secured his first podium of the season with a runner-up finish and Fernando Alonso, despite being in the mix in the late chaos after being turned around by Carlos Sainz, was able to retake his position in third.
Only 18 drivers lined up on the Albert Park grid, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez taking pit lane starts after changes were made to their cars overnight. They were two of only seven drivers not to opt to start the medium Pirellis, the top eight all on the yellow marked tyres.
The lights went out with Verstappen making a good launch and crossing the track to cover off Russell but the Mercedes driver held his position and had the inside line into Turn 1 to lead ahead of Verstappen, who was passed by Lewis Hamilton in the next braking zone for a Mercedes 1-2. Verstappen wasn’t happy: “He pushed me off the track, I was ahead at the apex, he pushed me off.”
And off went Charles Leclerc at Turn 3, the Safety Car out as he went flying off the circuit after being tagged by Lance Stroll. “Lance pushed my rear right,” was the dejected message, but Race Control ruled it a racing incident.
Esteban Ocon jumped on the opportunity to pit, swapping his softs for mediums, while Perez came in to get rid of his hards for mediums. Logan Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu also pitted. The racing resumed on lap 4, Russell not bothered by Hamilton who in turn had metres between himself and Verstappen. A straightforward restart with Carlos Sainz running P4 ahead of Fernando Alonso and Alex Albon.
With DRS coming into play, Hamilton closed right up on Russell’s rear wing with Verstappen on his, the leading trio dropping Sainz. The Safety Car was out for the second time on lap 8, Albon into the Turn 7 wall as he lost the rear and spun into the wall in a hard hit. Russell and Sainz pitted, down to P7 and P11 respectively.
Hamilton wasn’t overly impressed as he also wanted to stop but it turned out to be fortuitous as the red flag came out, the drivers all back in the pits where they were allowed to change tyres.
Given what was effectively a free pit stop, it was a blow to Russell and Sainz’s chances of a podium finish. The drivers all swapped to hard tyres excluding Nyck de Vries and Logan Sargeant.
As they left the pits, Hamilton leading the way ahead of Verstappen, there was drama further towards the back as four drivers came to a near halt on their way to the grid with three cars unsighted and flying past them.
Hamilton made a great start to hold off Verstappen, Alonso trying to fight the Red Bull but having to settle for third. Russell immediately took fifth, passing Stroll and Nico Hulkenberg while De Vries and Ocon made contact. Once DRS was available, Verstappen made short work of Hamilton passing him around the outside on lap 12, the two easily dropping Alonso.
Behind the leading trio Russell moved up to fourth as he overtook Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda barged past Oscar Piastri to move into a points-paying position and Sergio Perez made his way up to 13th with passes on Kevin Magnussen and Zhou Guanyu. Russell’s charge ended on lap 18, his Mercedes on fire as its engine gave up on him, bringing out the VSC.
Perez broke into the top 10 on lap 23, passing Ocon and then Piastri with Tsunoda his next victim, the Mexican driver up to P9 but over 13 seconds shy of the podium. Sainz was another driver on the move, aggressively up the inside of Gasly at Turn 3 to run fourth.
Ocon took Piastri around the outside at Turn 10, his straight-line speed massive compared to the McLaren. Having been overtaken a few times, Piastri made a pass of his own as he swept by Tsunoda to close in on the top 10. Tsunoda then lost places to Zhou and also Magnussen, AlphaTauri confirming to the driver that all was not okay with his car.
At the front Verstappen had pulled nine seconds clear of Hamilton with 20 laps to go, with the Briton told by Mercedes not to fall for Alonso’s trickery by pushing his own tyres too hard. Alonso was told if he had to pit again he’d lose five places, but that didn’t stop him trying to pressure Hamilton.
Behind the top three were Sainz and Gasly while Stroll, Nico Hulkenberg and Lando Norris all ran lonely races about three seconds behind each other. With 15 to go Norris had company in the form of Perez who took P8 off him down the inside at Turn 8, his next target Hulkenberg with the Red Bull driver closing at speed and taking seventh a lap later.
With 10 to go Alonso was told he no longer needed to save tyres and to go for it, Hamilton responding. Verstappen had a big oversteer moment and ran onto the grass and Norris launched his first unsuccessful attack on Hulkenberg for eighth. Their battled continued for several laps, a draggy McLaren even with DRS versus an aggressively defending Haas. He eventually made it stick at the third time of asking, switching back on the exit of Turn 11 and Hulkenberg sliding wide into the gravel in response.
His team-mate Magnussen was in the walls, losing it out at Turn 2 and hitting the wall with the rear right of his car. That not only cost him his tyre but also damaged the car’s suspension. The Safety Car was out as Magnussen’s incident left debris, including the tyre, strewn across the track. Race Control turned that into a red flag both Verstappen and Alonso baffled by that.
It allowed for two laps of racing, but that turned out to be just few corners as there was chaos on the restart. Verstappen made a great launch, covering Hamilton, who was fighting Alonso. The Spaniard was turned by Sainz, Ocon and Gasly tangled, Perez cut the corner, Stroll also crashed in the madness with Sargeant locking up into the rear of De Vries. The red flag was out again and, after some debate, Race Control opted to do lap 58 behind the Safety Car.
The FIA reasoned in a statement: “Race resumption behind safety car in the order of the previous start minus cars out. There will be a rolling start and as there will be only one lap left, the chequered flag will be out as they come back across the line.”
Verstappen won the race ahead of Hamilton and Alonso while Sainz crossed the line in fourth but had already been informed of a five-second penalty for spinning Alonso.
He dropped to P12 with Stroll fourth ahead of Perez, Norris and Hulkenberg. Piastri scored three points on his home debut, with Zhou P9 and Tsunoda 10th. And just to add to the chaos, Hulkenberg’s Haas broke down on his in-lap at Turn 2.
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing
2 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.179
3 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +0.769
4 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +3.082
5 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing +3.320
6 Lando NORRIS McLaren +3.701
7 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team +4.939
8 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +5.382
9 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +5.713
10 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +6.052
11 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +6.513
12 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +6.594*
[*5-second post-race penalty applied]
Did not finish
Esteban Ocon Alpine lap 57 – crash
Pierre Gasly Alpine lap 57 – crash
Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri lap 57 – crash
Logan Sargeant Williams lap 57 – crash
Kevin Magnussen Haas lap 54 – crash
George Russell Mercedes lap 18 – engine failure
Alex Albon Williams lap 8 – crash
Charles Leclerc Ferrari lap 1 – crash