Russell got the launch that allowed him to get down the inside of Verstappen into Turn 1 and compromised the championship leader’s exit. Hamilton didn’t need a second invitation as he sent his Mercedes to the inside of Turn 3, and Verstappen left just enough room as his rival forced his way through.
It was good, clean, hard racing between the two – even if Verstappen complained he’d been forced wide and rules were “clearly not followed” – and suddenly Mercedes ran one-two. There wasn’t time to bask in that glory though as Charles Leclerc was tagged by Lance Stroll and spun into the gravel at Turn 3, with the safety car required to clear the Ferrari.
“Turn 1 I took it easy I didn’t want to take any risks,” Leclerc said. “At Turn 3 I honestly wasn’t really planning to do any overtakes there but Lance had to brake quite early because Fernando [Alonso] had to because of the cars in front, so I saw there was a gap on the outside, I went for it.
“Unfortunately Fernando had to slow even more down the car and Lance found himself between Fernando and myself and we had contact. I’m not blaming it on Lance, I think it’s a racing incident, but just very frustrating because the end result is I’m going home with basically zero points.”
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Having started from the pit lane alongside Valtteri Bottas after making suspension and power unit changes, Sergio Perez was one of five drivers to make pit stops. He and Logan Sargeant had started on the hards and so had to make stops on consecutive laps to run mediums and then return to the hard compound with the intention of running to the end of the race.
On the restart, the top three broke away a little, with Alex Albon the standout in sixth place. However, that fairytale ended on lap 7 when the Williams driver dropped it at Turn 7 and hit the barrier heavily, bouncing back through the gravel to the track edge.
Russell and Carlos Sainz – running fourth – were called into the pits immediately, switching onto the hards and seemingly in the box seats. Once again, Russell’s joy was short-lived as the red flag was required to clear the debris and gravel from the track, giving every driver a free stop.
“Sorry George that screwed us, but let’s make the most of it and go to the front,” Toto Wolff said.
“Yeah don’t worry guys, it was a good call,” Russell calmly replied, shaking his head in disbelief in his cockpit as he had to restart seventh behind the Aston Martins, Pierre Gasly and Nico Hülkenberg.
Russell did limit the damage initially, climbing to fifth on the restart as the top three held station, before Verstappen used DRS to breeze past Hamilton and open up a stunning two-second lead within half a lap. Mercedes’ day then went from great, to good, to bad, to worse as Russell slowed with a power unit issue and parked up in the pit exit with flames emerging from the rear of the car.
“Frustration and disappointment, because on a track like this you can’t overtake after the pit stop and I saw Max and Lewis not pitting I was really surprised to be honest,” Russell said afterwards. “I came out in P7 on the new hard, they were just ahead, I was thinking the race is ours now.
“I see no reason why we couldn’t have won the race today, seeing how close Lewis was to Max and the pace we’ve shown the past couple of weekends has been really strong. Max would obviously have had to pass Lewis as well, but it could have been our race this weekend.”
The race soon settled into a game of cat and mouse as drivers tried to look after their hard tyres to ensure they made the end of the race. That saw the gap between Hamilton and Alonso ebbing and flowing, allowing Sainz – who recovered impressively with a number of moves – and Pierre Gasly to stay in touch.
Then just as it looked like all of the top ten were set in place, the late drama unfolded.
If the first red flag had been bemoaned by some, then the second was almost exclusively by Verstappen and Hamilton. Kevin Magnussen – after making a good move on Zhou Guanyu – appeared to simply open the wheel too much exiting Turn 2 and hit the wall on the outside, breaking his suspension and leaving debris all over the track.
After the Safety Car was deployed, the race was red flagged with three laps remaining to clear the track, setting up a mouthwatering proposition. Verstappen, Hamilton and Alonso the top three, all with new tyres, with a standing restart, chasing the win.
Of course, it also had the potential for chaos, and it was the latter that ensued. Verstappen held the lead well, with Alonso looking round the outside of Hamilton at Turn 1 but then aiming to slot in behind him when Sainz tagged the Aston Martin into a spin.
Gasly had nearly run into the back of Alonso himself and went off at Turn 1, rejoining at a slower speed than the pack behind and then moving across the track without looking. The car on his outside coming through was none other than team-mate Esteban Ocon, and the two Alpines spectacular collided and retired yards apart.
The carnage led to an instant red flag again, with only room for a lap to the grid to finish the race, making the restart order crucial given how some cars had made huge progress and others had their races ended. After a 15-minute delay the FIA confirmed the restart order would be the same as the previous grid but minus the retired cars – Sargeant having taken out Nyck de Vries too – meaning Alonso gained a reprieve and was classified third for the third race in a row.
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“Incredible, also for the team – third and fourth, 27 points out of this Sunday – it really made me feel happy for all the boys and girls in the team,” Alonso said. “The race was not easy for sure. I think at the beginning we got lucky with the first red flag because George and Carlos pitted so we benefitted from that.
“Then in terms of pace we were very close to Lewis all through the race. But any time that I tried to get close he seemed to pick up the pace. I tried to put on the pressure but he had an incredible race, no mistakes at all as you probably expect from him – a champion – only one lock-up I think in Turn 13 in 58 laps! So I was trying to put on the pressure but nothing happened, so we take P3.”
What wasn’t in doubt was Verstappen’s victory.
“We had a very poor start and then lap 1 I was careful because I had a lot to lose and they had a lot to win,” Verstappen said. “After that I think the pace of the car was quick, you could see that straight away.
“We were always there waiting for the DRS to open up to have a chance to pass, but with these red flags I don’t know… The first one maybe you can do it, but I think that second one I don’t really understand.
“So it was a bit of a mess, but we survived everything, we had good pace in the car again today and we won which of course is the most important.”
Despite not being able to take advantage of the final restart, Hamilton was still delighted with such a strong result for Mercedes having feared he wouldn’t be able to keep the pace up to hold Alonso off on his ageing tyres.
“I definitely wasn’t bluffing,” Hamilton said. “Honestly I was having to push a lot right at the beginning to keep Max behind and then Fernando was pushing. They’re very, very quick. I think ultimately he was a little bit quicker today behind me but I just managed to hold him off so for that I’m really grateful.
“And also just what a legend… We’ve got a world champion up ahead, we’ve got three world champions in the top three. That’s pretty mega.”
Mega is a term Haas could have been using too with Hülkenberg having made it to fourth amid the carnage before the final red flag, and similarly for McLaren and Alfa Romeo as both cars were briefly promoted too, but in the end the order rolling over the line was decided as: Verstappen, Hamilton, Alonso, Sainz, Stroll, Perez, Lando Norris, Hülkenberg, Oscar Piastri and Yuki Tsunoda.
The drama wasn’t over though even with no racing to take place, with Sainz given a five-second time penalty for causing the collision with Alonso. That meant the field bunched up behind him across the line to demote the Ferrari from fifth to 12th, leading to a pained reaction.
Perhaps some of the scenarios weren’t perfect, but then it has been made clear a Safety Car finish rarely is desired anyway. And given Red Bull’s performance, the fastest car won again.
2023 Australian Grand Prix race results
Nyck de Vries
*Includes point for fastest lap
**Includes 5sec penalty