MELBOURNE, Australia—In one of the most chaotic formula one races in history in only the fifth time in 36 years, Max Verstappen withstood three red flags, two safety cars and even a virtual safety car, plus a final climax of finishing the race under the safety car itself to take the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park ahead of Lewis Hamilton, with Fernando Alonso in third for the same amount of number of times so far this season.
The race began well, and instead of Verstappen leading, it was the Mercedes of George Russell who went out in front for only a moment, before Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc spun out at turn three, which brought out the first safety car. For Russell, the lead was quickly lost when he pitted and gave the lead to his teammate Hamilton, who now had Verstappen right behind him, with Alonso in third.
But only laps later, following the restart, Williams Alex Albon crashed at turn seven on lap 9 and brought out so much debris was on the track that marshals needed time to clean the mess up, prompting officials to issue the first red flag period, that stopped the race for a quarter of an hour.
Once the race finally got underway from a standing position, it did not take long for Verstappen to overtake Hamilton and did so on the back straight on lap 12 and gradually increased his lead. However, by lap 20, the first and only virtual safety car period came out when an unlucky Russell suffered a power unit failure and had to pull his Mercedes over in a dangerous position.
The race suddenly entered a slow period, where Verstappen by the 36th lap, now had a commanding lead of 10 seconds ahead of Hamilton, and it looked like the race would end on this note. But only a couple of laps before the end, Haas F1’s Kevin Magnussen tagged the wall following the first turn and ripped up his back end, damaging his suspension and even loosening a tyre in the process. Such was the extent of the damage that debris was all over the circuit and for the second time in the race, officials’ red flagged the race, in which Verstappen afterwards could not understand why.
"I just didn't understand why we needed a red flag," he said. "If you had had a safety car and then a normal rolling start, we wouldn't have had all these shunts and then you have a normal finish. So they created the problems themselves at the end of the day."
Hamilton afterwards nodded his head in agreement, and Alonso himself also spoke about the situation, which is beginning to look like the F.I.A. should have left the intended red flags alone.
"I was surprised with all the red flags, to be honest," he said. "The first one was a Williams in Turn Six but we went through there one lap with the safety car. There was a little bit of gravel but nothing really too bad on track. But we never know in the car what is going on on the track. Apparently, one barrier was not properly fitted. The FIA has more information than us. So if there is a red flag, it has to be for a reason.
We will ask probably in Baku what was the reason for the second. I know there was a piece of tyre and debris in the first straight but the car itself was in the inside of Turn Four so it felt quite safe there. And the safety car is for those kind of reasons. For us, maybe it was a different opinion, but the FIA are the only ones with all the cards in the table so in those kind of situations we trust them."
For the third time, the race began again from the standing position as Verstappen once again went in front of Hamilton, but further back, carnage began as Alonso was tagged by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who spun his countryman around, in addition to the second Williams of Logan Sargeant running into the back of Alpha Tauri’s Nyck De Vries, knocking those both cars out. If this was not bad enough, both Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, who was having a great race and was as high as fifth collided, putting both Frenchman out. By this time, officials finally issued the final red flag, but the question was to be whether the cars could start the race with only one lap remaining. But the final decision was to let that one lap be completed, but only having the remaining cars finish the final lap under the safety car since there were not enough laps to restart the race under normal circumstances.
For the rest of the grid, Alonso’s Aston Martin teammate, Lance Stroll, ended up in fourth, followed by Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, who began the race from the pitlane, and finished a deserving fifth. Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri gave McLaren double points in sixth and eighth, respectively, with Nico Hulkenberg finishing in seventh for Haas F1. Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu took ninth, ahead of Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who was lucky to finish after having problems for most of the race.
The next event in Baku has made a lot of formula one individuals, both drivers and team management and personal suspicious of what will await them in one month’s time, knowing that the dangerous circuit will host not only a Sunday race, but a Saturday sprint event, in which all this time for the next few week’s will have many people making crucial decisions of how the sporting rules will finally be taken.
By Mark Gero