After a contentious crash-affected restart, Max Verstappen prevailed in a tumultuous and divisive Australian Grand Prix that ended under a safety car.
Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes followed the Red Bull driver home to establish the podium.
That was true even though Alonso lost position after being knocked into a spin at a restart with two laps remaining.
Per the FIA rules, the vehicles had to complete a final lap behind the safety car after the finishing positions were determined from the most recent restart.
Carlos Sainz of Ferrari was given a five-second time penalty for tagging Alonso’s car at the first corner, which resulted in the decisive crash and dropped Alonso from fourth to 12th and out of the points, adding to the controversy.
Sainz, who was visibly upset, termed the choice as “unacceptable,” adding, “They need to wait and talk to me after the race. The punishment is not warranted. It’s too harsh.”
The other two major losers from the official rulings were the Alpine drivers Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, who took the penultimate restart in fifth and tenth place but collided with each other and withdrew at the second corner.
There will be debate over whether F1 is putting show business over the sport in light of the unprecedented happenings.
There is a clear connection between these incidents and the final laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021, when officials made mistakes that altered the outcome of Verstappen and Hamilton’s battle for the world championship. At that race, the final red flag was raised to try to ensure that the competition would end in racing conditions.
Sadly, that desire resulted in the odd and perplexing finale and a race that was ultimately stopped by a safety car.
Except for the incident between the Alpines, the FIA determined after the first-corner accident that a lap had been completed but that most of the other occurrences had no bearing.
Verstappen’s victory, along with a fifth-place finish for teammate Sergio Perez after the Mexican started from the rear, increased the Dutchman’s championship lead to 15 points.
The odd and contentious climax
After Kevin Magnussen’s Haas drove wide at the first chicane and hit the wall, the unusual events at the finish of a race that had already seen two safety cars and one prior red light were brought about.
The Dane’s wheel rim was broken, there was a puncture, and there was debris all over the track from the incident.
The timing of the incident meant that there would be two racing laps following the restart, per the rules.
Alonso’s rear wheel was tagged by Sainz, which caused the Aston Martin to spin and cause mayhem in the back.
Perez veered off course across the grass, and Gasly, who didn’t appear to notice Ocon outside of him, slammed his teammate into the wall, wrecking both cars.
The red flag was thrown once more right away, and because the field had not covered enough area for any other reference to be used to determine the start order, the regulations required that the order be followed at the restart.
Alonso was promoted to third despite sliding to the back following the crash, and Perez was moved up to fifth despite losing a lot of ground.
Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin finished fourth, ahead of Perez, Lando Norris of McLaren, and Nico Hulkenberg of Haas. The remaining points slots were filled by Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri, Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo, and Oscar Piastri of McLaren.
What happened before the uproar?
Verstappen had overcome an early push from Mercedes’ George Russell and Hamilton to lead the race before the decisive finish.
The race began with two safety-car intervals, the first on the first lap and the second on lap six, as well as the first red flag.
The first safety car was brought out by a collision between Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Stroll at Turn Three on lap one, and the second was brought out by a major crash involving Alex Albon’s Williams at Turn Six.
Leclerc called his third difficult race in a row “the worst start to a season ever.”
Verstappen, who had a terrible start and slid behind the Mercedes cars, ran third for a while but was in complete control once in front.
Russell was pushed out of contention for the lead by a pit stop in the hopes of taking advantage of the safety car after Albon’s incident, only to race stopped for the first time shortly afterward. He called the decision to halt the race at that point “very needless.”
Verstappen won his second race of the season after passing Hamilton two laps after the restart.
A few circuits after the restart, Russell experienced engine trouble and had to retire from fourth place. The weekend, which had begun with a fantastic second place on the grid, had ended in disappointment.
Sainz benefited from Russell’s issue, moving up to the fourth place, and gradually challenging Hamilton and Alonso but failing to overtake them.
Before the late drama, Gasly, who drove the Ferrari, was on track to finish fifth and put forth a strong effort for the French squad.
In cruise control, Verstappen
Verstappen hardly needed to use his speed, but the advantage Red Bull had over the rest of the field was obvious as he closed down on Hamilton to seize the lead following the restart.
Verstappen made his second dismal start of the weekend. He lost places to both Mercedes on the opening lap and was challenged by third-placed Alonso on the second, but once up and running, he was in a class of his own.
Within two laps of the restart, the Red Bull was right with Hamilton, and Verstappen stormed past the Mercedes on the straight up to the fast Turn Nine/10 chicanes, demonstrating the massive advantage the Red Bull has on the straights with the DR overtaking aid activated.
Verstappen extended his lead without ever stretching a car that now has a reliability weakness in the gearbox/driveshaft area over the final four corners of the lap, pulling out a two-second lead before starting to moderate his pace.
His sole issue was that he drove wide on lap 47 with 11 laps remaining at the penultimate corner and then complained that he kept locking his front tire entering that corner.
It decreased his lead from 11 seconds to 7 seconds, but Verstappen was still able to go without incident after that.
The chase for Verstappen
Although Verstappen cruised in front, Hamilton was forced to fight off a spirited attack from Alonso.
Hamilton was continuously radioing back to the pits, concerned that his tires would not last the distance, while the margin to his old rival fluctuated between a second and two.
His race engineer, Peter Bonnington, cautioned him not to fall for Alonso’s attempt to deceive him into over-using his tires.
And, as he had done so many times before, he was able to manage his tires expertly as Alonso did the same, and the two circulated near the flag.
As Russell retired, Sainz moved closer to Alonso, but he, too, was unable to cut the distance to less than 1.5 seconds. And he began to fall back in the closing 10 laps or so.
And Gasly drove a superb race to stay within the second margin, allowing him to utilize the advantage offered by the DR’s overtaking aid to follow the Ferrari to the checkered flag, a hopeful sign for Alpine.