MELBOURNE, Australia—Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed his first Australian Grand Prix title on Sunday in remarkable circumstances after a chaotic F1 race filled with drama from the green light to the checkered flag.
Although Red Bull’s first triumph in Melbourne since 2011 was expected, the carnage that unfolded in the latter stages of the race at Albert Park made it an extremely hard-fought win.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who drove superbly in his Mercedes, placed second for his first podium of the season, and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso took third spot.
Only 12 of the 20 starters finished the race, after a late rolling start behind a safety car, and the sport’s governing body said it was the first F1 GP in history to feature three red flags. Australian Oscar Piastri made the most of the disorder to finish eighth and claim his first championship points for McLaren.
Verstappen was pleased to clinch victory but queried the decision by stewards to issue a red flag after a crash on lap 55 of the 58-lap race instead of deploying a safety car.
He held a comfortable lead at that stage but then had to fight to hold the front position from Hamilton when the race was restarted.
“Of course we are happy to win the race, but I think the race itself towards the end was a bit of a mess with all the calls,” Verstappen said. “It left a lot of drivers confused as to why we needed a second red flag. Today was quite messy.”
Hamilton was delighted with the improvement Mercedes showed in Melbourne, which included a competitive qualifying performance on Saturday.
“It was very unexpected,” he said. “Getting a second and third in qualifying yesterday blew us all away and provided a huge boost of energy throughout the team.”
On the restart on lap 55, Verstappen was able to hold off Hamilton to the first turn as bedlam unfolded behind his Red Bull, resulting in a reshuffle of the finishing order.
Alonso, who had challenged Hamilton for second position throughout much of the race, was hit by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz on the first corner of the restart.
Sainz, whose Ferrari showed good speed throughout the race, was issued with a five-second penalty that relegated him to 12th.
The Ferrari driver was upset with the decision and Alonso later said he believed the penalty issued to his rival was too harsh.
In a separate incident, Logan Sargeant drove into the back of Nyck de Vries and the Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly also exited the race after crashing into each other.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashed on the opening lap, while the Mercedes of one-time leader George Russell caught fire on Lap 18.
After claiming his maiden pole position in Australia on Saturday, Verstappen was out sprinted to the first turn by Russell in a lively opening.
By the third turn Hamilton had also passed the Dutchman, raising the prospect an improved Mercedes team might be able to pull off a stunning upset.
But those hopes diminished when Williams’ Alexander Albon lost control on Lap 7 and crashed into the wall, which resulted in the first red flag.
Russell had already headed to the pits when race stewards decided the debris left on the track from the accident was a safety issue that could only be resolved by stopping the race.
This left the English driver in seventh spot, though he was forced out of the race altogether shortly after the resumption.
“When it is not your day, it is not your day,” Russell wrote on social media.
The race resumed with Verstappen stalking Hamilton at the front of the field and the two-time world champion used his Red Bull’s superior speed to take the lead on Lap 12.
Red Bull has won the first three races of the season for the first time in F1.
The Australian Grand Prix Corp. faced FIA stewards on Sunday night after a group of spectators broke through security and accessed the track during the chaotic ending to the race.
An event record 444,631 spectators attended the Australian GP over four days and a small group climbed over safety fences while one of the damaged cars still had its lights flashing red.
The race promotor admitted to a charge of failing to take adequate safety and security measures and promised to undertake a comprehensive reviews, including with Victoria state police, and report back to FIA by June 30. Stewards also referred the incident to the FIA World Motor Sports Council for further investigation to determine what penalties will apply.
Image credits: AP