It was mayhem in Melbourne as Max Verstappen survived a wacky races shoot-out to win the Australian Grand Prix that ended under a safety car two-and-a-half hours after it had started.
What was almost the last, crazy twist came when Kevin Magnussen hit the wall and sent his Haas’ right rear tyre into the air, spraying debris everywhere, causing a red-flag for a second time with just three laps remaining.
There was a 15-minute delay as wheel-rim debris was cleared away. The restart was extraordinary. Four cars crashed out, including a big coming together of the Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, two more collided but made it back to the pits. Debris was strewn everywhere again. With just a couple of corners completed, the red flag was waved once more for a third, and it would eventually prove, final time. Off they all went to the pits.
Was the race over, everyone wondered? Fifty seven of the 58 laps had been completed and a formation lap back to the grid would click it over to 58. Restarting the race for a fourth time would, therefore, mean an impossible 59 laps, one more than the laws permitted. Delay and confusion ensued. The crowd performed the Mexican wave as the FIA scratched their heads and thumbed their rulebook.
It was madness.
Max Verstappen won the Australian Grand Prix in a dramatic race at Albert Park in Melbourne
There was much drama and tension with George Russell retiring after his car caught fire
After a long delay: a decision. The cars were merely parade behind the safety car in the order they had restarted earlier, not where they had finished when the crash-ridden antics were paused and that third red flag was waved.
This would allow the chequered flag to be waved, the 58th lap having been honoured.
The ruling to revert to their previous order helped Fernando Alonso, of Aston Martin, because he had just collided with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who was handed a five-second penalty for the coming together, and fallen back. So Alonso maintained third place – with Lewis Hamilton second – when the embarrassing final, sedate, safety-car parade lap was performed.
Just 12 cars got to the end. Sainz was the last of them, almost crying at his penalty.
Before the late drama unfolded, Verstappen had been the beneficiary of a Red Bull operating like a car from another planet. Although passed at the start by both Hamilton and the luckless George Russell, who suffered a blown engine, the Dutchman swept to the front on lap 12 by leaving Hamilton for dead, and that looked as if it would be that – his first win in Melbourne and his second in three races this season – until the unexpected late turn.
Having zoomed past Hamilton, Verstappen opened up a 2.5-second advantage in a single lap such was his unassailable dominance, before slowing to a canter and controlling events almost until the end. Hamilton was holding off Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who finished third.
Hamilton’s podium was his – and Mercedes’ – first of 2023.
If it turned into a procession before the made ending, the first dozen laps were riveting. And in a boost for Mercedes after a depressing start to the season, they found form both in qualifying and over the 58 laps of the race.
Russell, starting second, made a brilliant start, taking Verstappen on the opening corner. It was excellent, and Verstappen was unusually tardy. Hamilton then strong-armed his way past the world champion at Turn 3.
‘He pushed me off the track,’ complained Verstappen. ‘I was ahead at the apex.’ No action was taken or needed.
Anyway, Mercedes were at the front. Game on. The season was coming to light after the one-sidedness of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The two Silver Arrows could now act in unison to thwart the inevitable Verstappen fight back. Verstappen, meanwhile, was without Perez, who started at the back after an accident in qualifying.
But it was not so simple. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was caught by Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll. It wasn’t Stroll’s fault. Leclerc was chancing his arm on the outside. Leclerc crashed off and the safety car was deployed.
When the action restarted, Alex Albon lost control of his Williams on Turn 6 and out the safety car came again. Now, Mercedes made an maverick call – bringing in Russell for a change of tyres. Why surrender the lead and put him into traffic on his return?
Nobody else at the top stopped, and the leader was the last man who needed to gamble. It also left Hamilton to fight Verstappen on his own.
Fate made it worse: a red flag. In they all came, including Russell in seventh place. Toto Wolff took to the radio to say: ‘That screwed us. But you can still get to the front and a podium or better.’
Russell replied generously: ‘Yeah, it’s not your fault guys. That was a good call.’
When the race restarted from a standing start after a 16-minute hiatus, Russell did well to get up to fifth. Hamilton held Verstappen well at the front. But Verstappen had no need to take chances there, such was his advantage, as he proved with his decisive move coming on to the back straight. Now you see me, now you don’t.
Russell’s day went from good to bad to worse when his engine blew on lap 17. ‘When it’s not your day, it’s not your day,’ he reflected.
‘Alonso’s fast,’ said Hamilton, while hanging on for second and fretting if his tyres would last to the end. They did until the Magnussen intervention.
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