Leclerc vs Verstappen Part III and more overtaking – What To Watch For in the Australian GP
Formula 1 is back on track in Australia for the first time since 2019 – and on a newly remodelled circuit. The drivers slugged it out for pole on Saturday, but what can we expect from Sunday’s race? Here are five key areas to keep an eye on when the action gets under way at Albert Park…
1. Leclerc vs Verstappen Part III
We’re just two races into the season, but already 2022 is starting to look like it could be all about Charles Leclerc vs Max Verstappen.
The two duked it out for victory in the opening race in Bahrain before Verstappen’s car failed just three laps from the finish, and they followed that up with that epic battle in Saudi Arabia where they traded the lead back and forth before the Dutchman just managed to seal victory ahead of the Ferrari.
And it looks like we’re in for more of the same in Sunday’s race after Leclerc sealed a superb pole position – Ferrari’s first in Australia since Kimi Raikkonen qualified on top back in 2007 – with Verstappen starting alongside him in P2.
The Ferrari has looked quick from the get-go in Australia, despite the fact Leclerc and Carlos Sainz appear to be suffering from heavy porpoising on the straights, while Verstappen said after qualifying that he hadn’t felt good in the car “all weekend”.
All three of Leclerc’s F1 victories have come from pole position, but Red Bull – with Perez in P3 – will be encouraged by the fact that the winners of the last four Australian Grands Prix have come from second or third on the grid.
Either way, we look set for another chapter in this fascinating rivalry between these two exciting young drivers.
2. More overtaking (hopefully)
At the last Australian Grand Prix in 2019 there were just 10 on track passes in the race. The year before there were only five – and in 2017 just two.
The event in Melbourne is a popular one on the calendar, but the narrow track has meant overtaking isn’t easy. But for this year, the organisers have tweaked the circuit to – hopefully – allow better racing, and more opportunities for passing.
Five corners have been significantly widened and had camber changes – including Turns 1, 3 and 6 – while the chicane in Sector 2, which made up the former Turns 9 and 10, has gone. Instead it’s a now a long, sweeping, flat-out run down to the new Turn 9, which should allow the drivers to follow more closely at high speed.
With three DRS zones as well, there are high hopes that the trend of fewer and fewer passes in recent races can be reversed.
3. Aston Martin trying to salvage their weekend
After missing the opening two rounds of the year due to Covid-19, this weekend marked the beginning of Sebastian Vettel’s 2022 season.
But it didn’t get off to a good start after his Aston Martin ground to a halt out on track in first practice, with the team unable to fix it in time for FP2 – while a piece of bodywork flew off team mate Lance Stroll’s car in the first session, causing it to be red flagged.
Things then got worse in final practice when both Vettel and Stroll crashed, causing significant damage to both cars. Stroll’s was fixed in time for qualifying, but unbelievably, he crashed again in Q1 after a misunderstanding with Nicholas Latifi in the Williams, which earned Stroll a three-place grid drop – although he was already last having failed to set a time.
The resulting red flag delay enabled the mechanics to get Vettel’s car fixed as well in time for one flying run at the end of the session, but the German – having had barely any track running in practice – could do no better than P18.
It caps a miserable weekend for the team in green so far – not helped by two fines for Vettel already: one for riding a scooter round the track on his way back from his FP1 crash, and a second for speeding in the pit lane when he finally made it out for that Q1 run – and they will need a healthy slice of luck if they’re able to score their first points of the year on Sunday.
4. Sainz and Alonso fired up after quali woes
As the qualifying session unfolded in Melbourne, it suddenly seemed entirely possible that either Carlos Sainz or, more surprisingly, Fernando Alonso could end up taking pole position, as both looked lightning quick in the early stages.
Alpine had looked fast all weekend and in Q3 Alonso was on an absolute flier and had set the fastest middle sector time of anyone up to that point when he appeared to suffer a hydraulics issue and crashed at Turn 11.
It was a bitter blow to the two-time champion, who was convinced he could have fought for pole.
But his crash also scuppered his fellow countryman’s chances of taking P1, as Sainz crossed the line to finish a competitive lap just seconds after the red flags came out, rendering his time null and void.
A mistake on his final run left him just ninth on the grid – one place ahead of Alonso. Expect them both, then, to have the bit between their teeth when the lights go out on Sunday, as they aim to fight their way back up the order to where they feel they should have been starting.
5. McLaren back in the hunt
Formula 1’s bold new era has not started well for McLaren, who were looking to continue their push up the grid after encouraging seasons in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
But the opening two races of the year were tough for the Woking squad, with neither Lando Norris nor Daniel Ricciardo able to make it through to Q3 in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, and Norris’ P7 in Jeddah their only points on the board so far.
But in Melbourne the team look to have unlocked some pace in the MCL36, with Norris topping the timesheets in final practice before netting a superb P4 in qualifying – ahead of both Mercedes – while Ricciardo is seventh.
We’ll find out when the lights go out if they can translate that speed into race pace when it matters…
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