Max Verstappen really doesn’t need luck to aid his quest for a third Drivers’ Championship. Sitting in the fastest car, driving with supreme confidence, and petrifying his rivals into tactical errors.
Such is Verstappen’s raw speed in the Red Bull that he can even afford a few slip-ups and still cruise to victory. On Sunday in Melbourne the rest of the pack may as well have rolled out the red carpet for the Dutchman.
Even two dramatic late red flags weren’t enough to threaten Verstappen’s superiority. He held off every challenge thrown at him.
Mercedes scared the defending champion for all of 12 laps. George Russell and then Lewis Hamilton enjoyed clean air for the first time this season, before being swallowed by Verstappen.
Two crashes within the opening seven laps helped. The second was a high-speed incident involving Alex Albon, the tyre wall and mounds of gravel, which triggered a red flag and only aided Verstappen’s push for the race lead that he’d surrendered to Russell at lights out.
Once he was ahead there was no stopping the 25-year-old. Kevin Magnussen’s crash four laps from the end bunched everyone up for a red flag – the restart of which Verstappen defended.
Verstappen celebrated his victory with fans and race strategists alike questioning the FIA’s decision making. Debris on the track from Magnussen’s crash was perhaps not deserving of a race stoppage. Why the race finished through a rolling start, with no overtaking, and not hard racing is a mystery. How Carlos Sainz managed to be docked to 12th was beyond the driver.
Even despite the late drama, was this result inevitable? Perhaps. Melbourne has four DRS zones and Red Bull’s system delivers a few tenths more than any other car, almost rudely adding to the RB19’s already frightening pace.
And it’s this speed that exposed the mental fragility, the sheer panic, within Red Bull’s rivals.
Mercedes had not run a single lap in the top two positions in either of the opening two races of this season. But both Russell and Hamilton were on hand to exploit Verstappen’s slow start. Russell lunged on the Dutchman from lights out and stole the lead within the first corner. Hamilton used his guile and experience to help Verstappen out wide at Turn 3 and saunter through the gap. “He pushed me off the track,” the defending champion complained. The stewards didn’t see an issue.
Two Silver Arrows at the front of a grand prix. A rare sight indeed. And it lasted all of seven laps as that panic set in.
Albon’s high-speed crash into the dirt and tyre wall at Turn 7 triggered a second yellow flag in just the seventh lap. Leader Russell plunged into the pits to switch out his tyres, Hamilton and Verstappen stayed out. The plan: race on hards to the end, knowing everyone in front of you need to pit at least once.
But then the red flag emerged. More than gravel was spattered across the track, it seemed, and Russell’s race was ruined. In came all cars, with Hamilton and Verstappen now able to change tyres, shedding their obligation to pit later in the race. Having snuck into first, Russell now restarted the race seventh and with no strategy advantage.
“Sorry George that screwed us,” Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said over the radio. “But let’s make the most out of it and get to the podium.”
“Yeah that’s not your fault guys. It was a good call,” replied a gracious Russell.
Ten laps later and Russell was out of the race, his car ditched in the pit lane exit with flames bursting from the exhaust. Quite how he lost power Mercedes will need to investigate. But in the meantime the team was focusing on Hamilton, who was busy complaining about his tyres.
The Brit had already lost his race lead to Verstappen by the time Russell bombed out, and was looking back at Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin, and Alpine’s Pierre Gasly.
Would Alonso, flying under the radar in third, catch the seven-time world champion? Hamilton was worried, furiously debating tyre strategy over the radio. Mercedes had already surrendered to Red Bull. Losing out to an Aston Martin would be hard to stomach, especially his old rival – and old teammate – Alonso.
Alonso waited and waited to make his attack. Sainz in the Ferrari was also sniffing out an opening. And they got their chance when Magnussen hit the track wall, lost his rear right tyre, and scattered debris across the tarmac.
Another red flag, another break, a late chance for Hamilton to jump Verstappen, for Alonso to jump Hamilton, for Sainz to jump Alonso. The restart was a mess. Verstappen and Hamilton got away cleanly but Sainz clipped Alonso. Cars went everywhere… and another red flag went up.
Cue more than half an hour of waiting as the stewards figured out what to do next. Upon reflection they found the race hadn’t gone through one sector before the final red flag, and so all cars that could still race had their places reinstated. But not Sainz, who was docked five seconds for his collision with Alonso.
It meant the 2023 Australian Grand Prix ended in a final-lap procession. Sergio Perez performed remarkably well to end fifth after starting the race at the back of the grid. It was as good a day as Red Bull could have wished for, especially with Ferrari’s Sainz and Charles Leclerc, and Russell at Mercedes, failing to pick up points.
Lando Norris earned a deserved sixth-place finish in an under-performing McLaren. But Haas and AlphaTauri were furious. Nico Hulkenberg and Yuki Tsunoda were on for fourth and fifth, before the FIA reinstated the order.
The debate over this finish will likely rage between now and the next grand prix in Azerbaijan at the end of April. But Verstappen won’t mind. His focus is on bigger things than middle-order squabbles.