Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022

Leclerc emulates Schumacher with Melbourne grand slam as Verstappen lucks out again

2022 Australian Grand Prix review

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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.

When 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.

Start, Albert Park, 2022
Leclerc never let go of the lead
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.

Carlos Sainz Jr, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Sainz’s torrid weekend ended in the gravel
“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.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Albert Park, 2022
Gallery: 2022 Australian Grand Prix in pictures
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.

Verstappen’s race ended through no fault of his own again
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.

Albon’s unorthodox strategy paid off handsomely
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.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Leclerc has amassed a daunting lead in just three races
“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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Carlos Sainz Jnr, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Ferrari head to their first home race of the year after two wins from three rounds

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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16 comments on “Leclerc emulates Schumacher with Melbourne grand slam as Verstappen lucks out again”

  1. Great to see Leclerc step up and show consistency and intelligence in his fight for this year’s championship. I hope he continues to do so.

    Max’s whining ever race is getting a bit too much. Perez has even started out-qualifying and racing him now that the car doesn’t favour him so much, so he should focus more on his driving. I can soon see him dirty racing again as the championship starts slipping from his hands,,

    Disappointed by Sainz’s excuse filled comments every race. He needs to own it and just perform.

    Impressed by the consistency from Russell so far, even if he is still consistently just falling short of Lewis, he is always there about.

    Sad to see Mclaren’s happy day being when they are the 4th best team. I wish Audi or Porsche buy them now and put some energy into this team.

    But my main issue is that the front and the midfield gap still exists even after the cost cap. So I think further tweaks should be made to it so that performance converges further.

    1. @prab The cap gets reduced by another 5m (to 135m) for the next three years.
      This is among the ‘further tweaks’ you wish.

      1. Is it enough though? I always thought that in a sport such as Formula 1, the highest prize money shoupd be for the lowest ranked team. And that prize money can get added to the base budget (lets say 75 million) of every year.

        Since these teams earn much more from endorsements and earnibgs through the promotion from the sport itself, this can work.

        1. Tim (@tsgoodchild)
          11th April 2022, 11:50

          I can’t see how that can possibly ever work. Where is the incentive to win if there is no high monetary prize? Here, do a poor job and we will give you £100m. I’d rather see restrictions on the championship winning or leading team – you can only bring updates to certain races whereas lower ranked teams can update at every race. How you much a team has to spend should be consistent…how a team can spend it and when, that is a more interesting dynamic.

    2. I wouldn’t call it being out raced by Checo , if Max is still faster in a car he doesn’t like.

    3. José Lopes da Silva
      11th April 2022, 22:18

      Max Verstappen is the 2021 Formula One world champion

    4. A bit too harsh on Carlos Sainz I’d say

      Carlos made a pretty big mistake under pressure and he does own it

      What came before is not his fault, nothing to own there. A red flag when you are a second from finishing a near-perfect flying lap, come on. Steering wheel failures for the next flying lap and at the start. Whatever. The final quali lap was poor because after the steering wheel failure there was no time for it, the Fezzas were preparing the flying lap with two outlaps and there was no time. The proper tyre was used up. Then starting the race with the hard compound was certainly not ideal.

      Then the mistake at the chicane but by then it all seemed a nightmare

    5. Outracing verstappen where? He was ahead both times the car gave up, I think the whining is perfectly justified when your car is the most unreliable of the grid.

  2. Love the Kazuki Nakajima reference. That was my first thought too when we saw the replay. Seb also crashed in that race iirc, battling Kubica for the podium and ensuring the race finished under Safety Car (sorry, I know I’ve poked a hornet’s nest with that one).

    Anyway, very much enjoyed that race. Great to see Melbourne back on the calendar and a track where you don’t necessarily need a lot of overtaking to have an interesting GP. We need to move away from measuring how good a race is purely on overtaking metrics. The art of defence is equally thrilling and being difficult (but not impossible) to overtake is what gives us those top-drawer moves like Checo on Lewis at the fast chicane. I’ll take moves like that over 100 DRS passes anyday.

    1. Jonathan Parkin
      11th April 2022, 14:01

      Berndt Maylander’s first Safety Car finish. The only previous one at the Canadian GP in 1999 was by Oliver Gavin

  3. Misuse of the phrase “lucks out”. Verstappen actually “out of luck”

    1. Agree. “Lucks out” means to have good luck.

  4. Masi Verstappen used up least five years worth of luck in Abu Dhabi last year.

    1. My apologies, I left off the asterisks. Masi Verstappen**.

      1. Yes, ofc, he uses five years of luck to gain 15 points relative to hamilton, how about the 40 or so points lost through bad luck earlier or now? He must be the most unlucky driver in f1.

  5. Leclerc is in great form.
    Sainz was unlucky in Qualifying, but the domination of Ferrari shows that he could have achieved a podium had he kept it on the road. So a very poor performance by Sainz in the race.
    Mercedes needs to quickly get rid of porpoising in the fast corners if they want to challenge the Top 2. Porpoising is still manageable on the straights but not in the fast corners.

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