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Leclerc dominates Australian GP as Verstappen retires again

Leclerc dominates Australian GP as Verstappen retires again

Leclerc dominates Australian GP as Verstappen retires again

Leclerc dominates Australian GP as Verstappen retires again

Charles Leclerc strengthened his early grip on this season's F1 championship with a commanding lights-to-flag victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Reigning F1 title-holder Max Verstappen was on course for a comfortable runner-up spot until suffering a second retirement of the season in his Red Bull 18 laps from the finish.

In a race at Melbourne's Albert Park that included two safety car periods for incidents involving Leclerc's Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz and Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel, the Monégasque finished 20.5 seconds clear of Sergio Perez.

Mercedes' George Russell netted the final podium place, and his first for his new team, ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

In also claiming the point for the fastest lap for the third successive race, Leclerc holds a 34-point cushion over Russell, with Verstappen and Hamilton now 46 and 43 points adrift respectively.

Unlike at many previous races at this track, the start was clean, with polesitter Leclerc able to keep Verstappen at bay.

The second Red Bull of Perez was compromised into turn one, allowing Hamilton to launch up the inside in his Mercedes to claim third as Lando Norris had made a poor getaway from fourth as Russell also passed his fellow Briton.

Sainz beaches Ferrari

For Leclerc's team-mate Sainz, his race weekend turned into a disaster.

After qualifying ninth due to a start issue in Q3, the Scuderia handed the Spanish driver a set of used hard tyres to start the race, compared to the eight drivers ahead of him who were all on new mediums.

But from the start, it was clear Sainz was unable to drag heat into the rubber as he dropped five places by the end of lap one.

On the second lap, after launching a move on Haas driver Mick Schumacher into turn nine, Sainz was unable to control his car, sending him across the grass and hurtling over the track and into the gravel at turn 10 where he beached the car.

It prompted the introduction of the safety car for four laps, and after an issue-free restart from lap seven, Perez managed to reclaim third from Hamilton with a move into turn three on lap 10.

By that stage, Leclerc had managed to open up a three-second gap on Verstappen given the better balance of his car.

By the time Verstappen pitted at the end of lap 18 onto the hard tyres, he had fallen nine seconds adrift.

Three laps later, and with Hamilton all over the back of his RB18, Perez also pitted along with Norris from sixth, with Daniel Ricciardo following a lap later.

Leclerc then pitted comfortably from the lead, followed by Hamilton who managed to easily perform the undercut on Perez but without enough warm-up on his new hard tyres, the Mexican passed the Briton for a second time into turn 13.

Vettel's Aston Martin shocker continues

Perez, however, was slow into turn 14 and just as Hamilton prepared to attempt a pass of his own, the safety car was called for a second time on lap 23.

On arguably the worst weekend of Vettel's long career, the four-time champion put a wheel on the kerb on the exit of turn four that spat him across the track into a wall, ripping off his front wing.

It allowed Russell a free stop, moving him up to third behind Leclerc and Verstappen, with Alonso fourth - but yet to stop - ahead of Perez and Hamilton, followed by the Haas of Kevin Magnussen - also to stop - and then Norris and Ricciardo.

The second restart was more feisty, with Leclerc just doing enough to ward off the swarming Verstappen who had Russell in close attendance going into turn three.

Perez and Hamilton soon made short work of Alonso to move up to fourth and fifth, while Norris and Ricciardo also made their moves on Magnussen to claim seventh and eighth.

On lap 36, Perez moved back into the podium places with a pass on Russell.

Verstappen suffers second Red Bull retirement

Three laps later, Verstappen was forced to retire for a second time this year given the late incident that occurred in the season-opening race in Bahrain.

Seemingly out of the blue, Verstappen was told to "turn the engine off", with the title-holder conceding he could "smell some weird fluid".

After a virtual safety car period, a concerned Perez then asked as to Verstappen's problem, to which he was told "don't worry, it's not relevant to our car".

Following that incident, it was a straightforward run to the flag for Leclerc, with Norris and Ricicardo finishing fifth and sixth behind Perez and the two Mercedes.

Alpine's Esteban Ocon netted seventh ahead of Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas, with AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly and Williams' Alex Albon ninth and 10th.

Williams ran Albon until the penultimate lap before he made his stop, at which point he was running seventh but emerging in 10th to net the team's first point of the year.

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