After two trying, winless seasons, Charles Leclerc is becoming a frequent member of the top podium step.
Following his tantalizing season opening victory at Bahrain International Circuit, his first victory since the 2019 Italian Grand Prix at Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Leclerc entered this weekend as the Formula 1 World Championship points leader.
Hot off a strong second place result at Saudi Arabia, Leclerc and his No. 16 Scuderia Ferrari F1-75 brigade entered Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix with a confident driver, a fast car and a team ready for 58 lap battle at the newly repaved and refit Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia.
Starting on the pole, Leclerc had a clean start over defending champion, Max Verstappen, wasting little time in clean air. However, Leclerc’s teammate, Carlos Sainz, found trouble on lap 2, going for an offtrack excursion around turn 9, leading to a disappointing DNF.
Once the action resumed, Leclerc’s lead was in a spot of trouble when Verstappen had a strong restart, making tremendous ground on his potential title rival in turns 1 and 2. The 24-year-old Monégasque showcased some of his suave and maturity, keeping his calm and cool by retaining the lead.
In fact, Leclerc drove masterfully at the 5.303 kilometer road course, looking comfortable and clicking off quick laps in his drive. The fifth year F1 racer continued to lead the way with his pit crew executing smoothly with their stop on lap 23.
Despite a safety car for a turn 4 accident involving four-time champion, Sebastian Vettel, on lap 24, Leclerc kept his wits about him when the race resumed green flag conditions lap 27. As Electric Light Orchestra once sang in 1977, Leclerc was “steppin’ out.”
While Leclerc pulled away from his competitors, Verstappen retired from the race on lap on lap 39 when smoke billowed from the rear of his No. 1 Oracle Red Bull Racing RB18 ride. The Dutchman reportedly smelled “some weird fluid” from his car which resulted in his second DNF in the season’s first three races.
From there on, Leclerc showcased his prowess, winning the Australian Grand Prix in incredible fashion over Sergio Perez by 20.524 seconds. On top of that, Leclerc took the Driver of the Day award and tallied another DHL Fastest Lap of the Race award, resulting in an F1 race weekend “grand slam” of a pole, fastest lap and win.
“It’s the first one where we could control a little bit the gap and honestly, what a car today,” Leclerc said after the race. “Of course, I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car and this weekend, especially on race pace, we were extremely strong, tyre felt great from the first lap to the last lap. We were managing the tyres extremely well. And I’m just so happy.”
Naturally, Leclerc kept a balanced perspective following his dominant performance, not wanting to jump the gun by talking about the championship with three of 23 races in the books.
“We only had the third race, so it’s difficult to think about the championship,” he shared. “But to be honest, we’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too. And for now, we’ve always been there, so I hope it continues like this.
“And if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself, so it’s great to be back in this position.”
Perez, earning his first podium finish of 2022, considered some of the challenges with his tyres while reflecting on his team’s up and down day.
“My first stint was very poor,” Perez observed. “In terms of degradation, we struggled quite a lot. Then on the hard with the Safety Car, we were a bit unlucky that we lost two positions, which we recovered later.
“Yeah, it’s a good result but unfortunately we lost Max, you know, it would have been great to have a double podium for the team. But yeah, looking forward you know, we’ve been a bit unlucky in the first two races.”
Meanwhile, fourth year F1 racer, George Russell, earned his first podium with the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team. Although Russell and teammate, Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time F1 champion, have yet to unlock the maximum from their M13, the 24-year-old Wisbech, England native was delighted with his result.
“We capitalized from others’ misfortunes and, obviously, we got a little bit lucky today, probably twice,” Russell said. “But, you know, we’ll take it and there’s so much hard work going on back at base Brackley and Brixworth to try and get us back to the front, so to be standing on the podium is special.”
With Imola awaiting in two weeks with the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Apr. 24, Leclerc, with a sizable 34 point margin over Russell, enjoys the biggest points lead since Nico Rosberg’s 37 point lead over Lewis Hamilton in 2016.
In the meantime, Leclerc is focused on scoring more wins with his torrid start for his team, although he’s likely to be greeted by the Tifosi in two weeks.
“I can imagine it, but I don’t want to think about it too much,” he shared. “Because it’s still very early in the season. Obviously, it’s good to be in the lead of the championship, I think I lead by 37 or 34 points. 34 – it’s OK.
“Thirty-four points is always good to take wherever you are in the calendar but, yeah, I don’t want to focus too much on the championship for now. Italy will be incredible, but we need to approach the race weekend, just like we approached the first three weekends.”
Australian GP Top 10 Finishers