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F1: Six things we learned from the Australian Grand Prix

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The last time Formula One came to Melbourne, the season-opening Grand Prix in 2020 was abandoned in a spate of panic as the pandemic took hold across the world. 

In the time in-between, motorsport’s most prestigious competition has captured the imagination of all corners of the globe – and Australia were not going to miss out on an action-packed weekend this time at the newly-designed Albert Park street circuit.  

Race three of 2022 saw F1’s return to Australia after a three-year absence and after Charles Leclerc’s comfortable start-to-finish victory, Sportsmail analyses six things we learned from the Australian Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc won in Australia, with Sergio Perez and George Russell also on the podium

Charles Leclerc won in Australia, with Sergio Perez and George Russell also on the podium

Albert Park was packed to the rafters all weekend as Formula One returned to Australia

Albert Park was packed to the rafters all weekend as Formula One returned to Australia 

FERRARI ARE TRULY THE TEAM TO BEAT

Another week, another strong and assured showing by world championship leader Charles Leclerc. 

Long heralded as Ferrari’s poster boy, 2022 is the first year where the Prancing Horse have given the Monegasque driver a car capable of challenging right at the top of the leaderboard week-in, week-out. 

In fact, forget challenging. Ferrari’s F1-75 is by some considerable margin the most reliable and efficient in the paddock right now. Leclerc’s victory was by a margin of 20 seconds – and would have been close to a minute without the two safety cars which bunched the pack. 

What’s more, in his fourth season wearing the famed Italian red overalls, Leclerc is emanating an aura of maturity and expertise which are that of a potential world champion. 

He’s fiercely competitive, too. Nothing illustrated the 24-year-old’s hunger for the title better than when – while cruising to a second win of the season – he made it known over the radio his eagerness to time a fastest lap at the perfect moment. Indeed, he registered an extra point with his final lap of the race.

Ferrari's Leclerc led from start-to-finish, picking up the maximum of 26 points from the race

Ferrari’s Leclerc led from start-to-finish, picking up the maximum of 26 points from the race 

The Monegasque now has a 34-point lead at the top of the standings after just three races

The Monegasque now has a 34-point lead at the top of the standings after just three races 

While team-mate Carlos Sainz’s weekend was mis-happed due to a combination of qualifying misfortune and race inaccuracy, Leclerc looked strikingly composed. There’s 20 races to go, but already Leclerc has a very healthy lead. 

After just three Grands Prix, the gap is 34 points. 

RED BULL UNRELIABILITY NOT A ONE-OFF 

While Leclerc’s Ferrari continues to flourish, world champion Max Verstappen again encountered problems which could curtail his title defence in no time at all. 

A second DNF in three races has seen the Dutchman – who won two weeks ago in Saudi Arabia – fall a mammoth 46 points behind the Championship leader less than a month into the new season. 

It was a fuel issue in Bahrain and it was a similar story this weekend when on lap 39, the Dutchman parked up on the side of the track as his engine caught fire, flames aplenty. 

Though not an identical problem to the season-opener as Christian Horner explained post-race, Verstappen’s irritation was unhidden as he described his retirement as ‘frustrating and unacceptable.’ 

They say a picture tells a thousand words and the photographer who snapped Verstappen watching on from the side as Leclerc’s Ferrari pounded past him on track deserves a pay-rise.  

Verstappen watches Leclerc's Ferrari race past him having just retried from the Grand Prix

Verstappen watches Leclerc’s Ferrari race past him having just retried from the Grand Prix 

The Dutchman's car caught fire, describing another DNF as'frustrating and unacceptable'

The Dutchman’s car caught fire, describing another DNF as ‘frustrating and unacceptable’

Yet as Verstappen added afterwards: ‘I don’t want to even think about the championship fight at the moment – I think it’s more important to finish races.’

Perspective is needed at this point. Back at Red Bull HQ in Milton Keynes, heads will be scratching as they look for a solution before Imola in two weeks’ time. Team-mate Sergio Perez’s last-lap retirement in Bahrain shows it’s not just a problem on Verstappen’s car too. 

The Mexican did at least claim second place in Melbourne. Yet should anymore DNFs linger, second won’t do come the latter part of the season for Verstappen’s title chances, which are extinguishing quicker than the flames on his RB18 on Sunday.  

MERCEDES’ DAMAGE LIMITATION KEEPS THEM IN TOUCH 

Remarkably, despite unwavering attention brought to Mercedes’ obvious struggles so far in 2022, the Silver Arrows are actually second in the Constructors Standings after this weekend, ahead of 2021 enemies Red Bull by 10 points. 

While that perhaps says more about Red Bull’s struggles than Mercedes’ gains, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell continue to register points despite a clear lack of pace compared to the top-two. 

This weekend, Russell was the beneficiary of a safety car as his pit stop in yellow flags saw him spurt up the leaderboard come the restart. He finished third, for his first podium in Mercedes colours. 

Yet for seven-time world champion Hamilton, topics off-track overshadowed a well-earned fourth-placed finish, with overtakes in the first corner showing the 37-year-old’s racing instincts are nowhere near waning. 

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell continue to extract the maximum out of the Mercedes car

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell continue to extract the maximum out of the Mercedes car

But it was his quotes in the press room which made more headlines. In pre-race notes from F1’s new race director Niels Wittich, the German focused on a rule prohibiting body piercings on drivers, which has been in place since 2004.

It’s a rule which has not been enforced before this weekend, at all. Yet Hamilton was inevitably questioned about it, given he has piercings in both ears and a nose stud.

His response was empathic: ‘I don’t have any plans on removing them. They are personal things. You should be able to be who you are. There is stuff that I cannot move. I literally cannot even take these out. These ones on my right ear are welded in so I would have to get it chopped off. They will be staying.’

The FIA are said to be waiting to see if Hamilton’s stance will change over the coming weeks before any further updates – or sanctions. An intriguing side-story to keep an eye on. 

Hamilton made his thoughts on the reappearance of the jewellery regulation quite clear

Hamilton made his thoughts on the reappearance of the jewellery regulation quite clear

ASTON MARTIN ARE IN FREEFALL

With a four-time world champion back in their ranks after a Covid-enforced absence from the opening two Grands Prix, would this be the weekend Aston Martin joined the 2022 points party? 

Nope. On the contrary, it was a few days to forget for Aston Down Under. 

Sebastian Vettel was back in the paddock but problems arose straight away during practice on Friday, when the German’s car broke down due to an engine issue in FP1. 

He was fined €5,000 for comically riding a scooter around the track back to the pits, before FP2 came too soon for a power unit change. 

Lance Stroll reacts after a collision with Williams' Nicholas Latifi during Q1 on Saturday

Lance Stroll reacts after a collision with Williams’ Nicholas Latifi during Q1 on Saturday 

Yet the difficulties didn’t depart come the weekend. Lance Stroll was arguably at fault for the expensive crash in Q1 with Nicholas Latifi, while Vettel also went no further than the opening qualifying session and started the race in 17th. 

As for the race, Vettel retired as he crashed on Lap 23 to cap a nightmare couple of days, while Stroll’s chance of points was scuppered by a five-second penalty for weaving on the straight.  

2022 was meant to be the year which narrowed the field. And, to an extent, it has. Yet Aston – a regular in midfield last year – are now the only team who have not scored a point this time round. 

Doubts are circling too about Vettel’s motivation in Formula One, in a car unable to challenge for the top honours. As he embarks on his 16th consecutive season in the sport, has he lost his fuel for the fight? 

Sebastian Vettel ended his weekend as he started it - with his car unable to continue on track

Sebastian Vettel ended his weekend as he started it – with his car unable to continue on track

The four-time world champion was appearing in his first race of 2022 but could not challenge

The four-time world champion was appearing in his first race of 2022 but could not challenge

GO BOLD OR GO HOME FOR WILLIAMS 

For Leclerc’s impressive control of the race from pole, drive of the day has to go to Alex Albon in the Williams. 

Starting right at the back due to a penalty carried over from Saudi, the former Red Bull driver opted for the boldest of strategies. 

On the hard compound tyre, Albon drove and drove and drove.  By the conclusion of the race, he was up to seventh. What had we missed? 

The Williams driver hadn’t pitted – and it’s compulsory to use two different tyre compounds. He had brilliantly balanced both race-pace and tyre-wear so by the time of the inevitable visit to the pits ahead of his final lap, an unlikely top-10 finish was feasible. 

A bold and unorthodox strategy from Williams' Alex Albon paid off with a 10th-placed finish

A bold and unorthodox strategy from Williams’ Alex Albon paid off with a 10th-placed finish 

It was a masterful drive from the former Red Bull star and he was delighted to clinch a point

It was a masterful drive from the former Red Bull star and he was delighted to clinch a point

Whether it was exquisite timing or a twist of fate, Albon came out 10th and held off Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu by two seconds to claim a championship point for the Oxford-based team. 

A bold, unorthodox raceday strategy which came up trumps for Williams. A philosophy they should persevere with throughout 2022. 

F1’S APPEAL HAS STRETCHED TO ALL CORNERS

The skyrocketing of Formula One across the world over the last year or so has been well publicised and this weekend, it was Australia’s moment in the sun. 

Starved of any action in three years, Aussies flocked to Albert Park in numbers not ever seen before. With an overall weekend attendance of 420,000, it was the biggest sporting event in Australian history. 

The Grand Prix was the biggest sporting event in Australian history with 420,000 attendees

The Grand Prix was the biggest sporting event in Australian history with 420,000 attendees 

Fans flocked to see Aussie star Daniel Ricciardo, who earned his first points of the season

Fans flocked to see Aussie star Daniel Ricciardo, who earned his first points of the season 

It was also more than the 400,000 in Austin, Texas, last October and the 356,000 at Silverstone last July.  

The atmosphere was aided throughout by an upturn in form for the McLarens, with the popular Lando Norris and hometown star Daniel Ricciardo registering their first points of the season.   

In a country where the lockdowns were the most stringent on the planet, the Aussies reveled in F1’s return. Not the season-opener this year – but it made a very public show of affection that it could return to its rightful place at the top of the calendar. 

The attendance at Albert Park even bettered staggering figures in Austin and at Silverstone

The attendance at Albert Park even bettered staggering figures in Austin and at Silverstone 

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