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Formula 1 Australian GP

10 things we learned from the 2023 Australian Grand Prix

Max Verstappen continued Red Bull's 100% winning record in the 2023 Formula 1 season so far at Albert Park, but the Australian Grand Prix was certainly not devoid of talking points. On a day that the race direction and tyres came in for criticism, Mercedes led laps for the first time this season and one driver narrowly escaped a race ban, here are 10 things we learned in Melbourne

Podium: Race winner  Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, second place Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG, third place Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin Racing

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An incident-packed Australian Grand Prix was, for those encumbered by a European time zone, certainly worth getting up for. Although another Max Verstappen victory was unsurprising given his and Red Bull’s advantage in the early part of the 2023 Formula 1 season, late chaos threatened to derail the otherwise settled pecking order.

In F1’s first triple red-flagged race (or quadruple, if one counts the late Nico Hulkenberg stoppage), the FIA once again got itself into a pickle with its approach to race direction, and the decision to introduce a stoppage to proceedings after Kevin Magnussen’s wall-bang received criticism in the media – particularly after it precipitated a deluge of chaos on the second restart.

There were other secondary and tertiary storylines festering underneath the thunder Down Under too, with plenty to chew over before F1 takes a nearly four-week hiatus before the next round in Baku. Here’s our usual 10 points of interest following the race at Albert Park.

1. The FIA still can’t decide how to handle late-race incidents

The third start in Melbourne prompted carnage, as many questioned why the race had been stopped following Magnussen's prang

The third start in Melbourne prompted carnage, as many questioned why the race had been stopped following Magnussen's prang

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

When Magnussen splintered his right-rear wheel against the Turn 2 exit kerb, the Dane was able to limp as far as Turn 3 before parking up off the track. With shards of debris littering the track and a car for the marshals to move, it looked as though the latter stages of the race would be destined to end under the safety car. After all, that’s how proceedings ended in last year’s race at Monza, although this came with pockets of outcry that the race was allowed to fizzle out.

Perhaps that outcry was the reason why FIA race director Niels Wittich instead elected for the red flag to be flown, effectively guaranteeing that the 16 drivers left in the race could battle until the end. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

Instead, unbridled mayhem ensued. Carlos Sainz hit Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly put himself and Alpine team-mate Esteban Ocon into the wall, and the order was shuffled like a deck of cards before another red flag enacted a further halt. Thus began further confusion with a lap left to run: would the FIA stick with the resulting order, or revert to the initial starting order sans those forced into retirement?

It opted for the latter, prompting an official protest from Haas as Nico Hulkenberg got up to fourth, but this was waved out by the stewards. There have been three recent examples of late-race crashes and all have been handled differently: the safety car was called off early in Abu Dhabi 2021 to provoke a last-gasp title battle, the race ended behind the safety car in Monza last year, and now there has been a red flag conferring a standing start in Australia.

Thus, the FIA needs to decide on what the official protocol is. Sure, it begs the existential question of ‘is F1 primarily a sporting pursuit, or entertainment?’, but there must be consistency.

2. Mercedes is making progress with its troubled W14

Russell's race ended with an engine failure, but he followed up a strong qualifying by grabbing the lead from Verstappen at the original race start

Russell's race ended with an engine failure, but he followed up a strong qualifying by grabbing the lead from Verstappen at the original race start

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Having been keen to play down its chances of troubling those at the sharp end until it has settled on an agreeable car concept, Mercedes perhaps overdelivered on its own expectations in Australia. George Russell was quickest off the draw at the start and bolted into the lead, while Lewis Hamilton’s buccaneering into the third corner got him ahead of Verstappen to ensure that it was Mercedes, not Red Bull, who led the opening phases.

Russell was unfortunate after the initial flurry of laps, with his stop under the safety car proving to be a gamble that did not pay off as Mercedes’ strategists – along with everyone else – were blindsided by the first red flag. His progress to make up for that suddenly evaporated with a powertrain fire, leaving Mercedes’ hopes with Hamilton.

Despite the seven-time champion’s best efforts, the Red Bull RB19 in Verstappen’s hands was too much to resist; the Dutchman cruised around the outside before Turn 9 on the 12th lap to ultimately collect the lead.

But Hamilton was still able to stay on track for second, responding to the increasing pace from Alonso behind in the second half of the race to maintain his grip on the runner-up spot. The team looked good all weekend, and the 2-3 in qualifying perhaps should have been matched in the race without Russell’s failure. There’s work to do with the W14, but the Brackley squad is not in any mood to simply roll over.

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3. Verstappen still has exploitable weaknesses

Verstappen was victorious again, but wasn't without error on his way to collecting another helping of 25 points

Verstappen was victorious again, but wasn't without error on his way to collecting another helping of 25 points

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Amid the wild nature of this year’s race in Melbourne, Verstappen picked up his first Australian GP win. But of his 37 victories in F1, it was one of the less stellar examples of his oeuvre as the defending champion endured a scrappy race.

His start was somewhat leisurely compared to Russell’s and, having got bogged down on the exit kerb of Turn 1, was ripe for the picking as Hamilton grabbed a tow into Turn 3 and forced his way through into second. Without Sergio Perez to protect him as the Mexican started from the pitlane, Verstappen’s vulnerability became somewhat exposed.

PLUS: The critical calls preceding Verstappen's Melbourne march and F1's red flag saga

When the two-time champion had later picked up the lead and was embarking on his path of stretching his advantage over Hamilton, he lost time running wide at Turn 13. It cost him about three seconds, which he spent briefly mowing the turf before rejoining the circuit. The error was completely unforced and, although Verstappen expressed his frustration with front-left locking, it was ultimately his mistake.

As Verstappen has gone largely unchallenged over the past year, those small errors have gone largely unnoticed and unpunished. But, if any of the other teams can force their way into the picture for wins and start matching Red Bull, Verstappen still has soft spots on his underbelly that can be exploited. They’re only small weaknesses, but their existence will be heartening to any future challengers he may have.

4. Ferrari finds new ways to add to 2023 comedy of errors

The ignominy of Alonso being re-inserted ahead of Sainz in the pitlane queue was amplified by the Spaniard getting a penalty which knocked him out of the points

The ignominy of Alonso being re-inserted ahead of Sainz in the pitlane queue was amplified by the Spaniard getting a penalty which knocked him out of the points

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Bahrain’s season opener proved difficult for Ferrari, as the high tyre wear set the team back somewhat, but a previously unexplored vein of unreliability was inexplicably tapped into. With that problem with the control unit presumably fixed, the SF-23 still has a tendency to gorge upon its Pirelli rubber like medieval royalty at a banquet.

This wasn’t a concern at Albert Park as the circuit is considerably more lenient on tyres, so Ferrari had a chance to make a good go of things at a venue where it has historically performed well. At least, until the drivers made a hash of things...

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Charles Leclerc bumped himself out on lap one after finding that Lance Stroll could not simply squeeze his Aston Martin up like an accordion into Turn 3. The Monegasque touched wheels with Stroll, putting himself into the gravel with no means of escape; it was especially clumsy, and wasted Ferrari’s chances of collecting a decent haul of points.

PLUS: Australian Grand Prix Driver Ratings

Sainz then clattered into Alonso on the lap 57 restart, undoing his good work and copping a five-second penalty that cost him a shot at the podium. Although the penalty has been viewed as harsh, with Sainz especially aggrieved by it, the drivers’ collective awareness of space was sorely lacking in Australia. The team must regroup for Baku, as Ferrari has not yet properly delivered on the glimmers of pace it has shown this season.

5. Alonso’s race awareness remains unparalleled

Another determined drive secured Alonso his third consecutive podium for Aston Martin

Another determined drive secured Alonso his third consecutive podium for Aston Martin

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

If there’s anyone who keeps a dog-eared copy of the F1 rulebook, it’s Fernando Alonso. The two-time title winner appears to know every permutation set out by the sporting regulations and, while attempting to recover from the Sainz clash amid the lap 57 drama, implored his Aston Martin team to check the red flag protocol in a bid to save his podium efforts. He seemed to be in the know long before the stewards had decided to reinstate the starting order.

Now armed with a competitive car, Alonso’s hunger – and awareness of the cars around him – appears to have returned to the fore. In Bahrain, he attempted to get Hamilton to respond to his pace in a bid to get his former McLaren team-mate to use up more tyre life, displaying his tactical process of thought.

That wasn’t something he could lean on as much in Melbourne, so Alonso had to take a bigger-picture approach. Instead, he incrementally built up his pace throughout to ensure the chasing Sainz and Pierre Gasly would not be a threat, and start to put pressure on Hamilton ahead. With tyre wear less of a concern, Hamilton was able to respond to ensure Alonso could not get to within a second of him, but the Spanish driver’s continual probing for points of vulnerability will eventually get some degree of pay-off this season.

It’s great to see that, at 41, Alonso is as quick and as cunning as he’s ever been. F1 is better with him in it, and his penchant for strategy is something that the younger drivers would be wise to learn from.

6. McLaren is lacking aero efficiency, but its drivers are making the difference

Norris made short work of passing Tsunoda, although Piastri took considerably longer to do so

Norris made short work of passing Tsunoda, although Piastri took considerably longer to do so

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

In short, aero efficiency is a measure of downforce against drag. The likes of Red Bull seem to have got the trade-off just right, but it’s an area where McLaren has seemed to struggle in the opening phase of 2023. The MCL60 doesn’t have the top-end speed to match its immediate rivals, and it has ultimately resulted in former technical chief James Key receiving his P45.

But Lando Norris made a go of things in Melbourne, and patiently worked his way into the top 10. HIs defence against Perez, who was piloting a much faster car, was strong and Norris did his level best to keep the rapid RB19 behind until the Saudi Arabian GP winner eventually broke past.

Then, the Briton put a lovely move on Hulkenberg after making the cut-back at Turn 11 work, drawing alongside and taking the inside line for a lesser-spotted move at the following corner, and kept it clean on the chaotic second restart to line up sixth for the parade to the finish.

Team-mate Oscar Piastri also managed to shrug off the pressure of his first home F1 race to recover from a lowly 16th on the grid, getting clear of the lower midfield battles once he’d passed Yuki Tsunoda. This ultimately yielded the Australian his first points in the championship, matching the feat of countrymen Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo who also did so on home turf.

McLaren has a lot of work on its plate to carry out if it wants to be competitive in 2023, but it now has points on the board after a troubled start to the year.

7. Hulkenberg has still got it, including his podium-based allergy

Hulkenberg's drive was rewarded with deserved points, although he missed out on the podium Haas's protest hoped to achieve

Hulkenberg's drive was rewarded with deserved points, although he missed out on the podium Haas's protest hoped to achieve

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Having outmatched Magnussen in qualifying so far this season, Hulkenberg had not been able to trouble the scorers in the opening races of the 2023 season as Haas has struggled with race pace. But the veteran German rolled back the years with a strong drive in the lower reaches of the points, battling with drivers in faster machinery.

Having had to be content with bit-part campaigns in the past three years after departing Renault at the end of 2019, acting as a fail-safe for Racing Point/Aston Martin as a reserve on the occasions that Perez, Stroll and Sebastian Vettel were sidelined with COVID, Hulkenberg has relished being a full-time driver once again. His run to seventh place in Melbourne underlined why Haas had disposed of Mick Schumacher’s services.

But, on another day, it could have been more. Had the race not been red flagged for a third time moments before the field moved through the first sector, Hulkenberg could have inherited a podium once Sainz’s penalty was applied.

It was grounds for Haas to protest, arguing that there had been an order set through the second safety car line – which was used as a marker at Silverstone’s paused race last season. It seems that, no matter what the situation, an F1 podium still remains elusive for the 35-year-old Rhinelander.

8. Pirelli is under fire as drivers cite tyre struggles

Drivers struggled with grip at the final restart, which proved especially costly for Alpine

Drivers struggled with grip at the final restart, which proved especially costly for Alpine

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

After the race, Norris sounded off about the state of play with the current generation of 18-inch Pirelli tyres. He levelled criticism at the Italian rubber-smiths, explaining that the tyres were not particularly festooned with the grip that the drivers expected.

“We have a soft [tyre] on that's 65 degrees C and I can't describe how little grip there is on track,” he complained. “It’s not a bad temperature. But the tyre doesn't work and on this surface with this tyre temperature, I can't describe how bad the grip is.

“If the tyres felt like they gave us some grip, I think you'd be able to see a good race without chaos and some clumsiness and things like that. It's just difficult.

“We need a tyre that gives us some more grip and actually a tyre that feels like it should be on a Formula 1 car at the top of motorsport and at the moment, on a day like today, it feels pretty terrible.”

Williams duo Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant agreed with Norris’ assessment, both blaming their respective incidents on the lack of traction that the Pirelli boots offered, and the inconsistency in tyre temperatures.

“I’ve had a look at the data and it was a bit of a strange one,” said Albon. “I went through the corner slower than I did on the lap before, it's just I went through the previous corner quicker.

“I went through Turn 5 a little bit quicker and used a little bit more exit kerb. I think it spiked the tyre temps a little bit on the left-hand side.”

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9. Gasly is lucky to escape a ban after Ocon collision

Gasly faced the prospect of being banned from Baku if he was given penalty points for his clash with Ocon

Gasly faced the prospect of being banned from Baku if he was given penalty points for his clash with Ocon

Photo by: Alpine

Amid the chaos of the second restart, Gasly managed to throw away a potential fifth-place finish after veering into the path of team-mate Ocon. This led both Alpines to crash on the Turn 2 exit wall, disposing of a potentially neat haul of points for the French manufacturer.

Gasly, who was perilously close to a race ban having accrued 10 of the 12 licence points for a variety of misdemeanours last year, could be forgiven for getting hot under the collar as the stewards worked through its backlog of cases – particularly as Sainz had copped a penalty for his own incident on the same stretch of track.

But the stewards showed Gasly leniency, remarking that “it was a first-lap racing incident” and electing to take no further action. In the preceding weeks, the FIA clarified its approach to awarding drivers with penalty points but, given that the French driver was not hit with any punitive measures for his clash with Ocon, this revised approach did not need to be tested.

Regardless, Gasly remains on 10 penalty points until his two from last year’s Spanish Grand Prix are scrubbed on 22 May.

10. Melbourne is still a world-class circuit, but organisers have work to do

The event promoter was summoned to the stewards over fans getting access to Hulkenberg's stranded car after the race

The event promoter was summoned to the stewards over fans getting access to Hulkenberg's stranded car after the race

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

The novelty of the F1 field returning in Australia after nearly three years away thanks to the COVID pandemic has not quite worn off. Although many (this writer included) would prefer Albert Park to host the season opener, rather than occupy the third slot on the calendar as it has in the past two seasons, Albert Park continues to deliver in the on-track stakes.

Off-track, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation running the show has some work to do. It’s rare to see a race organiser summoned to the stewards, but the AGPC had to send a representative following a track invasion after the chequered flag.

Hulkenberg’s Haas came to a stop to produce a fourth red flag on the cooldown lap, and fans running onto a live circuit had managed to get in reach of the stranded VF-23 despite having a red light on to indicate a potential electrical hazard.

This was found to be a breach of Article 12.2.1.h of the International Sporting Code, which the AGPC admitted to in front of the stewards. It has agreed to submit a remediation plan to address how the track invasion happened, and will consult with F1, the FIA, and the Victorian police to ensure there are no further repeats.

The FIA was not impressed with the AGPC over post-event scenes

The FIA was not impressed with the AGPC over post-event scenes

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

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