Charles Leclerc shines in Australian Grand Prix, amid other surprises

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Could the driver’s championship already be decided just three races into the season?

It is still too early to say, but for Max Verstappen, the potential of another consecutive title is the last thing on his mind.

“I don’t even think about it,” Verstappen said. “At the moment, there is no reason to believe in it.”

And there is a clear reason for the Red Bull driver’s thinking: In the Australian Grand Prix, Verstappen did not finish a race for the second time this season as Charles Leclerc took the checkered flag to extend his overall lead to a comfortable 34 points over the next-highest scorer, Mercedes’ George Russell.

For Leclerc, the win was sweetened by the fact that he achieved a grand slam: winning the race, securing pole position in qualifying, getting the fastest lap and leading every lap. He was the first Ferrari driver to do so since Fernando Alonso in 2010.

“What a car today,” Leclerc said after the race. “It was not possible without the car. This weekend, we were extremely strong. The tire felt good from the first to the last lap; we were managing the tires extremely well; and I’m just so happy.”

It was not completely flawless for the Scuderia, however. Like Verstappen, who once again retired due to a fuel issue, a Ferrari counterpart also failed to finish the race. Carlos Sainz — after failing to grab pole position in qualifying due to an issue with his tire’s temperature — retired on the second lap of the race after losing control of his car. Nevertheless, Ferrari still holds a 39-point lead in the Constructor Standings ahead of Mercedes, who had Russell take his first podium under Toto Wolff.

Most of the attention will undoubtedly go to Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes — after all, those were the three teams expected to compete for the two championships this year. But lost in the limelight of Leclerc’s victory, another team had its driver accomplish something not seen in more than a decade.

Williams’ driver Alex Albon, who started the race at the back of the grid, finished in 10th place to grab the last point available; and, in the process, it gave Williams its first point of the season.

It wasn’t the most traditional way for Albon to secure the final point. He started on hard tires to last longer in between pit stops, and despite the fact that two safety cars came out, the Brit decided not to change tires during either period. While Albon decided to pit late to change to soft tires, his gamble enabled him to finish ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu.

Albon was not the only driver who was able to reverse his own bad fortunes. McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo turned in arguably his best performance of the season, finishing in sixth place, one spot behind teammate Lando Norris. It was a welcome turnaround after Ricciardo’s struggles underpinned what was a frustrating season for McLaren prior — the team gained just 6 points in the two races before Australia.

With the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy coming up, teams such as Ferrari, Williams and McLaren will look to continue their momentum. While Red Bull’s standing in the Constructor Standings was kept afloat by Sergio Pérez’s performance, the team hopes to resolve the problems that caused Verstappen’s retirements. And as for Mercedes, Wolff hopes that a strong showing in Melbourne can be the springboard for further success.

There is a lot to keep an eye out for the next race. While the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships seems to be Leclerc’s and Ferrari’s to lose, the Australian Grand Prix showed there are other teams eager to make their mark.

Ali Fazal covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].