Eight years ago, a precocious 17-year-old not even legally permitted to drive a road car at the speed limit made his Formula 1 debut at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne.
As Max Verstappen returned to Australia to 2023, he did so for only the first time as the championship leader. The mission was to earn the unique dish-shaped Sir Jack Brabham trophy for the first time in his career – one of only four available this year he has not previously acquired for his cabinet.
Heading into the race, the world champion could hardly have asked for a stronger chance of success. Red Bull’s early season superiority is unquestionable, punctuated by him securing the team’s third pole from three attempts. Helpfully, the one driver wielding the same potent machine, Sergio Perez, was starting not from the grid but the pit lane – a legacy of a subpar Saturday that had ended the turn three gravel.
Instead, two black shadows haunted Verstappen at the front of the grid. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had turned the narrative of Mercedes’ performance woes around by securing their best starting positions of the season. However, both Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jnr behind were quietly confident that while their cars had been bested by Mercedes on Saturday, both Aston Martin and Ferrari would be stronger on Sunday.
As the top seven starters lined up in their newly-expanded grid slots on medium tyres, a potential six-way fight over the honour to finish behind Verstappen appeared to be in the making. However, that all changed the moment the lights went out.
Verstappen’s start was good. Russell’s was great. Verstappen moved to squeeze the Mercedes to the inside on the run to the first corner, forcing Russell to take to the pit exit. But an unfazed Russell held the inside to sweep into the lead. Verstappen’s exit was compromised by his line, leaving him vulnerable to Hamilton behind. Although not as far alongside Verstappen as his team mate had been, Hamilton held both his nerve and the inside line into turn three to muscle Verstappen down to third, prompting objections on the radio from the pole-winner.
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Two car lengths back, Charles Leclerc refused to be beaten by both Aston Martins into turn three. As he turned into the right-hander, Lance Stroll already occupied the space the Ferrari driver intended to take. Contact was made and Leclerc slid into the same gravel that had claimed Perez a day prior. After 20 seconds of praying for the gods to grant him traction, he had to admit defeat.
“That’s it,” he said, surrendering to his fate. “Lance touched my rear-right wheel.” A second failure to finish in three rounds for the man who had departed Australia just one year ago with one of the strongest early championship leads any Ferrari driver had ever enjoyed.
Seconds after Leclerc jumped from his car, an automated voice called into a now-empty cockpit. “Safety Car deployed. Stay positive.”
The red Mercedes AMG sitting at pit exit was greeted by two of its siblings leading the field at the end of the first lap. Russell and Hamilton had transformed Mercedes’ race – now no longer about keeping their places behind Verstappen but of keeping Verstappen behind them. But with no reason for his team mate not to attack him for the lead, Russell’s most pressing concern for the lap four restart was keeping ahead of Hamilton.
Russell stamped the throttle pedal through turn 11 and bolted, taking the green flag seven tenths ahead of Hamilton and over a second to Verstappen. Russell knew breaking the one second mark would be critical – but so did Hamilton. By the time DRS was activated, Hamilton only just qualified for it along the lakeside straight, but gained over seven tenths to his team mate by the time they hit the brakes for turn 11. Russell was feeling the heat.
“You’re asking me to manage and I’m being attacked by my own team mate,” said Russell, his cadence betraying his agitation at a situation reminiscent of the previous race. “You need to tell me what to do.”
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But soon Mercedes had a more pressing emergency. Alexander Albon, who had been running an excellent sixth, was sat in a broken Williams at the exit of turn six, a high-speed loss of control having put him into the barriers, scattering gravel across the circuit like the very points he had just thrown away. The Safety Car was back on track for the second time in seven laps and the Mercedes pit wall made their call, summoning in the leader for hard tyres they hoped would take him to the end of the race.
Despite inheriting the lead, Hamilton was hardly pleased with this development. “That’s put me at a massive disadvantage,” he bemoaned to race engineer Peter Bonnington. Russell, however, was licking his lips. “Alright. Bold call,” he said learning he sat in seventh. “I like it.”
However, as he headed down to turn 11, the LED marshal boards suddenly flashed red. Russell, instantly aware of what this meant for his race, slammed his steering wheel in frustration. As work began on the barrier repairs and debris that race control claimed were the cause of the stoppage, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff offered his condolences to his former leading driver.
“Sorry George – that screwed us,” he offered. “But let’s do the most out of it. We can still go to the front – on the podium or better.”
Russell was magnanimous. “Yeah it’s not your fault, guys,” he replied. “That was a good call.”
The red flag allowed all of those who hadn’t dived into the pits under the Safety Car to change tyres. The vast majority did so, and as the cars rolled out of the pit lane with when the track opened 15 minutes later, the majority were on hard rubber they could run until the end of the race. Lining up on the grid for the second time in half an hour, Hamilton occupied pole position for the first time since the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
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The race resumed with Verstappen getting another inferior getaway to a Mercedes alongside him. Alonso put pressure on the Red Bull, then slotted into third as Hamilton resumed the lead. Verstappen remained well within a second of the leader over the first green flag lap, with Alonso dropping back from Verstappen in third. Behind them, Pierre Gasly was enjoying a strong start to the day in his Alpine, sitting fourth ahead of Russell who had gained two places at the restart.
As soon as DRS was enabled, Hamilton could see what was coming. “He’s gonna get by already,” he said, resigned to the inevitable as he entered the Lakeside Drive straight with Verstappen less than half a second behind him. By the time Verstappen’s nose was ahead of the Mercedes, he was almost 20km/h faster.
Verstappen swept through the chicane into the lead before finishing the lap with a blistering new fastest lap to sit already two seconds clear of Hamilton. In just one lap, Verstappen and Red Bull had reasserted their dominance in crushing style.
“Into management, Max,” race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase cautioned his seemingly unstoppable driver. “It’s a long way from here.”
With Verstappen escaping out front, the expected battle between Mercedes and Aston Martin for runner-up honours was well and truly on. Alonso was just within a second of Hamilton, while Russell picked off Gasly’s Alpine to move into fourth and head off in pursuit of the Aston Martin. But suddenly, on lap 17, Russell felt something not quite right heading down to turn 11.
“Big de-rate,” he reported. “Check deployment. PU’s broken.”
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Russell was swamped by the cars behind as he slowed along the pit straight, his car’s power unit slowly eating itself behind him. Unable to pull over until he passed the pit lane, flames licked from the exhaust as his changes of a podium finish went up in smoke. A brief Virtual Safety Car period was deployed, but racing resumed after just a single lap as the charred Mercedes was wheeled back into the pit lane.
When the race resumed, there were 40 laps remaining. With none of the top ten planning on pitting for the remainder of the race, there were no pit stops and no strategies to play out. If Alonso wanted to get ahead of Hamilton, he would need to find a way past the Mercedes on the track. But he had plenty of time to do it.
For over 40 laps, two of Formula 1’s most decorated champions were locked in a cold war. Hamilton eked out his advantage over Alonso to just over two-and-a-half seconds. That was enough for Alonso to pick up the pace, quickly pulling back within two seconds of the Mercedes by leaning harder on his tyres through the longer right handers of turns 12 and 14.
“Yeah, looks like Alonso’s dropping the management,” Peter Bonnington informed Hamilton. “Think he’s trying to push you into using your tyres. Let’s not fall for it.”
Once within two seconds, Alonso never let the gap to Hamilton grow beyond that mark again for the rest of the race. But no matter what Alonso did, he could not break that one second barrier that would greatly open up his options of putting Hamilton under pressure.
“In terms of pace we were very close to Lewis through the race,” Alonso later observed. “But every time that I tried to get close, he seemed to pick up the pace.”
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Verstappen had no such worries out front. As he so often has over the last two seasons, the leader gradually stretched out his advantage while simultaneously keeping his tyres in as healthy a condition as possible. But even Max Verstappen is capable of a mistake and as the Southern Hemisphere sun slowly sunk against the Melbourne skyline, the leader made a rare error into turn 14, snatching an inside brake and running wide onto the grass.
“Just a tiny lock-up,” Verstappen later explained. “They tend to flat spot the tyres, so I ran a bit wide, cut the grass a bit, saved Melbourne a bit of money to cut the grass there…”
The minor excursion cost only three seconds, which did little to dent his chances of victory. Alonso, meanwhile, would have been delighted for Hamilton to emulate the leader’s error. But the Mercedes driver was offering Alonso nothing in his pursuit of the second-placed car.
“Only one lock-up, I think, turn 13, in 58 laps,” Alonso recalled after the race. “I was trying to put pressure, but nothing happened.”
But sometimes drivers do not require pressure to make mistakes. As the race wound down to the final laps, 12th-placed Kevin Magnussen was being slowly caught by Zhou Guanyu. Despite being out of DRS range, Magnussen badly misjudged the width of his Haas on the exit of turn one on lap 53, driving into the outside barrier of turn two which caused his right-rear tyre to be jettisoned off the wheel, coming to a rest metres from the marshal post.
But the limited race distance remaining made it highly likely the race would not resume before the chequered flag. Whether or not this factored into the decision, moments later, to red flag the race seems fairly self-evident.
For the second time, cars lined up in the pit lane in order, the teams mulling a likely third grid start of the afternoon. Verstappen’s commanding lead was reduced to nothing, with a likely two-lap sprint meaning another subpar start could rob him of his victory. As Verstappen climbed out of his car and walked to his pit wall to consult with his team, Christian Horner summed up the simple task ahead for the leader: “You’ve just got to get the best start you can.”
Once more, the stoppage allowed all cars to switch tyres, but that made little tangible difference as the vast majority simply switched from well-worn hard tyres to softs. For only the second time in history, drivers headed out of the pit lane to line up for the third standing start in the same race.
Verstappen resumed pole for this third attempt. Despite Hamilton appearing to react quicker to the lights extinguishing, the Red Bull found good traction and pulled clear on the run to turn one, leaving Hamilton with no opportunity to challenge for the lead. But while Verstappen was safe out front, chaos engulfed the pack behind.
Sainz had risen to fourth before the red flag, but was beaten off the grid by Gasly alongside. In the twilight-soaked braking zone for turn one, Sainz appeared to leave his braking just a touch too late and understeered into Alonso’s left-rear on the exit of the first corner, pitching the Aston Martin into a spin to the outside. Further back, Logan Sargeant speared into Nyck de Vries, while Gasly and Perez ran off the road.
As Gasly rejoined the track, he did so in front of team mate Esteban Ocon. Whether through error or ignorance, Gasly drifted into the other Alpine, sending both of them bouncing into the barrier and wrecking both instantly. As the leaders ahead approached turn three, Stroll braked late to try to hold the inside line against Sainz, but ran out of road and onto the gravel.
Five separate incidents in less than 30 seconds of racing. Potentially millions of dollars in damage. The Alpine team wiped out after a top five finish appeared to be within their grasp. Aston Martin out of the points. A third red flag.
“Fuck me!,” Alonso exclaimed angrily. “Fucking stupid rule! How the hell can you put a red flag before…”
But once the rage was out of his system, the wily Alonso quickly clocked that his race may not have been ruined after all.
“Maybe because we didn’t complete the lap, we go back to the same positions [as the restart],” he reasoned. “It happened at Silverstone. Check this immediately.”
Yet again, the field were brought into the pit lane. Just a single race lap remained – effectively meaning the race was over for all intents and purposes. There was zero doubt over who led the race and who would be credited with the win if it did not restart, but the mayhem in the midfield left a major question mark over how the order behind Verstappen and Hamilton would be calculated.
Eventually, after 15 more minutes of uncertainty, teams, drivers and fans finally got their answer. The final racing lap would indeed be completed, but it would be little more than a parade lap to take the chequered flag. But despite this, the restart order would be determined by the grid order of the previous restart – the last point of which race control could reliably and confidently declare an order.
This effectively wiped out Alonso’s misfortune, promoting him back to third place, while Nico Hulkenberg’s rise through the carnage to fourth place was declared null and void. Sainz had been dropped from third back to fourth, but he had yet worse news to come when race engineer Riccardo Adami passed along the message that the stewards had handed him a five second time penalty for his clash with Alonso.
“No! It cannot be, Ricky!,” a distraught Sainz pleased. “Tell them, it is unacceptable. They need to wait until the end of the race and speak with me!” Sainz’s impassioned cries for mercy, only a portion of which were broadcast on the world feed, failed to move the stewards.
The cars were moved back to the same order in which they had previously left the pit lane for that ill-fated final restart – save for the two wrecked Alpines.
Despite no further green flag racing set to take place, virtually every seat in every grandstand around Albert Park remained filled as the 12 cars that remained drive-able filtered out of the pits for the final time in this exhausting evening of racing. Verstappen led the field around the circuit for the 58th and final time, taking the chequered flag to secure the first Australian win of his career and second triumph of the season. But Verstappen was not impressed by the haphazard finish to the race.
“Of course, very happy to win the race,” he said. “But I think the race itself towards the end was a bit of a mess with all the calls. “I don’t think we needed that second red flag. I think that could have been done with a Virtual Safety Car or a Safety Car at worst.”
Although Mercedes had again been thoroughly out-paced by Red Bull yet again, Hamilton was only seeing the positives from his and his team’s first podium of the season.
“We had a shot at trying to at least overtake Max for a second,” Hamilton summarised after the race. “We both got ahead, which was amazing – to have a Mercedes one-two for a second. And obviously he came sailing by at one stage, but it was a really entertaining race and I had a really good battle with Fernando, which was awesome.”
Hamilton theorised that the Aston Martin had likely held better overall pace than his Mercedes during the afternoon but had been unable to get by to make the most of it – something Alonso did not contest.
“I think when you do 50 laps within two seconds of the car in front, normally you have a little bit more,” he accepted. “If you have a little bit of clean air, probably you can get two or three tenths out of that lap time. But in the other end, I could not get any closer than that. So, I think we were very similar.”
Sainz was beside himself crossing the line in fourth. Despite his best efforts to game his post-race penalty as much as he could, he plummeted well out of the points and down to 12th place after it was finally applied – leaving him as the final car running. That moved Stroll up to fourth, with Perez coming home in fifth after starting from the pit lane and battling his way up the order through a gauntlet of midfield cars while his team mate had been untouched out front.
Lando Norris secured McLaren’s first points of the year in sixth, ahead of Hulkenberg who finished a strong seventh for Haas but probably deserved better. Melbourne’s own Oscar Piastri took his first points in Formula 1 in eighth, with Zhou Guanyu and Yuki Tsunoda claiming the final points and ensuring that every team had now scored at least one point in 2023.
The absence of the Chinese Grand Prix leaves a four week hole in the calendar before the next round in Azerbaijan – almost as much time as it will take to dissect the countless controversies emerging from this race. But as Verstappen flies back to Europe to recuperate and prepare for Baku and beyond, he does so with Australian Grand Prix winner’s trophy in his possession for the very first time.
Now only three podiums remain at which Verstappen has not stood on the top step. At the rate he and Red Bull continue to go at, it’s hard to see him not completing the full set before the year’s end.