In his esteemed 11-season stint with Ferrari, Michael Schumacher achieved a hat trick result of pole position, victory and the fastest lap across 17 different race weekends – including a ‘grand slam’ in 2004, where he led every lap in Melbourne.Charles Leclerc took the first chequered flag to be waved on a grand prix at Albert Park in 1,120 days, he not only secured his second hat-trick in three races for Ferrari – and his first career grand slam – he did so with an air of dominance through which seven-time world champion Schumacher so famously forged his own legacy in Formula 1.
The near three-tenths of a second gap between Leclerc and second-placed Max Verstappen at the end of qualifying seemed ominous given the pair had been separated mainly by hundredths or thousands of a second over the start of the season. But with two Red Bulls behind him for the start and both demonstrating formidable top speed in practice, it looked like Leclerc would face more pressure in the race.
But before Leclerc took to the grid in his pole position winning Ferrari, his team mate, Carlos Sainz Jnr saw a weekend which began promisingly continue the nose-dive which began almost 24 hours earlier during Q3. After a problem prevented him from getting out of the garage promptly for his final qualifying attempt, there was more trouble for Sainz as he made his way to the dummy grid before the formation lap.
“We had again a problem with the steering wheel,” Sainz later explained. “A similar problem to yesterday – there were a few buttons that were not working. We had to change the steering wheel.”
When the lights went out under the slowly-setting Victorian sun, Leclerc nailed his getaway, covering off the Red Bulls and sweeping clear into the first corner. Back in the ninth grid slot, the second Ferrari failed to get away until its second attempt.
“The steering wheel was not well positioned for the start and we triggered anti-stall in both starts because of the clutch and the torque,” said Sainz, who fell from ninth down to 13th place before Mick Schumacher demoted him further before the end of the first lap.
Understandably irate at going backwards in a car that was capable of leading the race, Sainz tried to kick-start his recovery by sweeping back past the Haas into the fast turn nine-ten chicane. But he over-committed, his hard tyres not yet giving the grip he needed, and spun across the grass, sliding backwards across the track in front of Zhou Guanyu before coming to a rest in the gravel, his hopes of salvaging a result now buried like his Ferrari.
“Obviously I was on the back foot and I tried to make up the places at the first three laps and I clearly made a mistake when the tyre was probably not ready to start overtaking,” he said.
“I misjudged the grip and I made a mistake which caused me the retirement. So clearly not perfect, I haven’t been perfect this weekend.”
It had been a perfect start for his team mate, however, as Leclerc led the field under the Safety Car deployed to recover the beached Ferrari. Verstappen lay second, with Lewis Hamilton in third having jumped both Sergio Perez and Lando Norris into turn one.
The race resumed at the start of the seventh lap, Verstappen hounding Leclerc while obeying the new directive from race control which forbade drivers from drawing alongside their rivals before restarts. With Perez having let Hamilton take his third place from him at the start, he then took it back by passing the Mercedes on the run to turn three with help from DRS.
After a couple of laps of running just a second behind the leader, Verstappen then began dropping away from the back of the Ferrari by over a second a lap, his radio revealing the reason why.
“Mate, my left-front is completely grained,” Verstappen informed race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase. “I need more front wing.”
With the conventional wisdom in the paddock being that one stop was the way to go, switching from the mediums to the hards at the right time would be critical. But when Verstappen’s deficit ballooned to nine seconds, Red Bull felt it was time to bring him in at the end of lap 18.
They followed this two laps later by doing the same to Perez, who was resisting unexpected pressure from Hamilton’s Mercedes. When Hamilton eventually switched onto the hards two further laps after Perez, he rejoined ahead of the Red Bull, who immediately began attacking him.
Along the lakeside straight, where the fourth DRS zone had been removed the day before, Perez showed that the overtaking aid was unnecessary by sweeping by the Mercedes on the approach to turn nine. Hamilton stayed tight through the quick chicane, knowing he would have a great opportunity to counter into turn 11. However, just as Hamilton pulled left to claim the outside line, two large ‘SC’ letters suddenly began flashing on the flag panels in front of him.
Back in the first sector of the course, Sebastian Vettel had confirmed this weekend would likely prove Aston Martin’s worst since being reborn under the famous carmaker’s name when he had lost control of the kerb on the exit of turn four, clattering into the barriers in a manner only Kazuki Nakajima could empathise with. With debris on the racing line and a broken Aston Martin off it, the Safety Car was again an obvious call for race director Niels Wittich.
Obvious too was Mercedes’ opportunity to pit George Russell, who had remained on track in third as his team mated had boxed. After being told “one more lap” as he approached turn 11, the Safety Car was deployed as he rounded turn 12, with Russell called to pit as he navigated the left-hand hairpin of turn 13 just before pit entry. For Russell, fortune could not have struck at a better time.
“I was thinking ‘happy days’, to be honest!,” he admitted after the race. “Obviously had a bit of fortune there – but that’s part of the game, part of the sport. Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve been on both ends a number of times before.”
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As Leclerc’s lead vanished under the Safety Car, Verstappen now had an opportunity to reset and attack the Ferrari again. And when Leclerc missed the apex of the final corner at the restart, Verstappen drew square alongside the Ferrari on the run to turn one. But with the inside line, Leclerc held firm, holding the Red Bull up for just a moment through turn two, allowing him to break Verstappen’s momentum and pulling away with his lead intact.
With the hard tyres, Leclerc’s advantage over Verstappen grew more gradually than it had on the mediums. Behind them, Perez dispatched the Alpine of Fernando Alonso who had inherited sixth after staying out behind the Safety Car, before catching and putting Russell under pressure for third.
Knowing the Red Bull had the superior pace, Mercedes realised that battling to keep Perez at bay would likely be a futile effort and warned their driver not to favour tyre life over track position. Not that it made too much difference, as Perez was soon past at turn 11.
But almost as soon as Perez was receiving praise for his move over radio, his team mate Verstappen was reporting something fishy on his car. “I smell some weird fluid,” he warned. As the 39th lap began, a bad smell was suddenly the least of the world champion’s problems.
“Ugh, everything is shitting itself,” he said as the car underneath him began to lose power.
“Okay Max, stop the car, please. Stop the car. Stop the car. Try to stop by a fire marshal if you can, please,” came the inevitable instruction from Lambiase.
As Verstappen pulled off into his second retirement in three races, cursing his luck and staring at another 26-point blow early in the championship, Leclerc’s lead now seemed truly untouchable. Perez continued to fall away as Leclerc metronomically ticked off lap after lap in the 1’21s, utterly in control.
The top eight positions appeared to be set, with the two Mercedes of Russell and Hamilton running in tandem in third and fourth, comfortably ahead of the McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, enjoying by far their best Sunday of 2022. The anomalous Alex Albon was the only wildcard, running in seventh while still wearing the same hard tyres with which he had taken the start.
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In a coded message, Williams asked their driver if he could take his hards to the end of the race. “I was like, ‘yeah, we can definitely go to the end’,” Albon later described.
Leaving it until the last possible opportunity, lap 57, Albon came into the pits for a last minute switch to the softs. But right at the edge of his pit window was Zhou, who was implored by his team to adopt a qualifying style of attack to beat the Williams out.
Despite an agonising delay on the left-front wheel, Albon emerged from the pits with Zhou screaming down the pit straight behind him. Rounding the first turn, Albon was vulnerable on his cold tyres, but Zhou, eager to get ahead, asked for more traction from his rear tyres than they could provide, almost pitching the Alfa Romeo into a spin. Albon could then pull away, breaking clear as his softs came up to temperature – Williams’s smash-and-grab strategy paying off handsomely with tenth place.
But out front, Ferrari and Leclerc had not required clever strategy or opportunism to take their second win of the season. Just pure pace and execution.
Drinking in the applause of the over 419,000 fans around the park, Leclerc took the chequered flag and, with it, a commanding tally of 71 points from the first three races – the most any driver had amassed over the same timeframe since Nico Rosberg began his march to the 2016 title by winning the first three rounds.
“I think we were all surprised by our pace,” Leclerc said. “On the medium, already, towards the end of the stint, we were extremely strong. We didn’t have too much graining, so the pace was very strong.
“After qualifying and FP2, we didn’t see that performance difference between us and Red Bull, so it was a very good surprise.”
While Perez had done as much as Red Bull could reasonably have asked of him after Verstappen’s untimely exit from the race, he understood what a setback the weekend had been for his team.
“We’ve lost a lot of points already in these first three races that in the end can make a huge difference in the championship,” Perez said. “I’m sure we will turn things around and hopefully we can start again from zero when we go back to Europe.”
For Russell, his fortunate third place was yet another example of he and Mercedes making the most of their car despite their obvious shortcomings compared to their rivals. It leaves him an unexpected second in the standings.
“It’s credit due to the team for giving us so far a very reliable car and we’ve got to be there at the end to capitalise from these results” Russell said. “I think every race we’ve done, we have truly maximised the result possible – I don’t think we could have achieved a higher result at any of the circuits as a team and that is, I guess, a silver lining.”
Having emulated Michael Schumacher by taking a grand slam victory for Ferrari in Melbourne, Leclerc admitted frankly that all that mattered to him was that he had been the one to cross the finish line first. But even with a 34-point advantage over the rest of the field, Leclerc was staying focused on the long game.
“I think it’s extremely important not to put on ourselves extra pressure and not try to overdo things,” he said. “Because we are working as a team extremely well since the beginning of the season and we just need to keep doing our job, just like we did in the first three weekends.”
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