Max Verstappen reclaimed lead after losing out to George Russell & Lewis Hamilton at start; Red Bull driver looked to be cruising to win before late red flag set up two-lap sprint to finish, which was cut short series of collisions leaving race to finish with processional safety-car lap
By Sam Johnston in Melbourne
Last Updated: 02/04/23 10:00am
Max Verstappen held off Lewis Hamilton to claim a maiden Australian Grand Prix victory after a chaotic race, which finished with a processional safety-car lap following a wild late restart.
Verstappen looked to be cruising to a comfortable win having reclaimed the lead after losing out to George Russell and Hamilton during a frantic opening, but Kevin Magnussen’s crash and an ensuing second red flag of the race set up a two-lap sprint to the finish from a standing start.
The reigning world champion stayed in front of Hamilton off the line, before a crash between third-placed Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz behind him set off a series of other collisions, with Alpine team-mates Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon taking each other out from points-scoring positions.
A third red flag followed, along with further confusion and controversy as there was a long wait before the FIA decided to restore the order from before the restart to complete the one remaining lap behind the safety car, because the cars had not made it far enough around the track before for the updated classification to be confirmed before the red flag came out.
That meant that Alonso returned to third, but Sainz was left devastated as a five-second penalty for causing the collision saw him relegated to being last of the 12 cars that finished, leaving Ferrari pointless after Charles Leclerc’s first-lap retirement.
More than two and a half hours after the race had begun, Verstappen was left to take the chequered flag unchallenged and complete his second win in three races this season, while Hamilton secured his first podium of the campaign.
Russell, who had given up the lead when pitting under safety car conditions – not expecting the red flag that followed – when Alex Albon crashed out on lap six, retired on lap 18 after a technical failure.
Lance Stroll finished fourth behind team-mate Alonso to seal a strong points haul for Aston Martin, while Sergio Perez produced a solid recovery drive after a disastrous Saturday to come fifth after starting from the pit lane at the back of the field.
Lando Norris drove a brilliant race to finish sixth as McLaren scored their first points of the season, with rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri benefitting from the late chaos to claim his first points in the sport by coming eighth at his home race.
Nico Hulkenberg capped a strong weekend to finish seventh for Haas, while Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and Yuki Tsunoda of AlphaTauri also received late promotions to round out the points.
Australian GP Race Result
1) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3) Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin
4) Lance Stroll, Aston Martin
5) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
6) Lando Norris, McLaren
7) Nico Hulkenberg, Haas
8) Oscar Piastri, McLaren
9) Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo
10) Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri
Madness in Melbourne
After a hugely entertaining qualifying on Saturday had seen Mercedes emerge from their early-season struggles to challenge Verstappen for pole in cool and windy conditions, there were fears that the race – taking place under bright sunshine – would be unable to provide a match.
That theory was disproven as early as the first corner, as Russell got enough the line brilliantly to pass Verstappen into the first corner, before Hamilton followed his team-mate through at Turn 3.
Before Verstappen could attempt to fight back, a first safety car of the race was sent out when Stroll and Leclerc, who had started in sixth and seventh, made contact behind the leaders at Turn 3, sending last year’s Melbourne winner into the gravel trap and out of the race.
Russell held off Hamilton, who was closely followed by Verstappen, at the rolling restart, before the safety car returned on lap six as Albon crashed into the barrier after spinning at Turn 7.
Russell looked to take advantage by swapping his medium tyres for a set of the hard compound that he hoped would take him to the end of the race, but the decision backfired as moments later a red flag was waved, giving Hamilton and Verstappen the chance to change their tyres for the loss of no time as the cars gathered in the pit lane.
Russell resumed in seventh, while Sainz, who had got past Alonso at the start, did the same and dropped to 11th.
Hamilton was able to beat Verstappen to the first corner at the standing start that follows a red flag, but once DRS was enabled two laps later, the seven-time world champion was powerless to prevent his great rival from easing into the lead on the long straight approaching Turn 9.
Russell, who had outqualified Hamilton for the third time in as many races this season, continued his impressive form by quickly passing Hulkenberg, Stroll and Gasly to get back up to fourth, but was then forced to pull over on the home straight after a power unit issue saw the back of his W14 catch fire.
A virtual safety car followed, with the race interrupted for a third time in an opening 18 laps that provided more entertainment and drama than many entire races have in the past.
Controversial red flag sets up wild finish
It became clear either side of the virtual safety car that Hamilton’s main battle was holding off Alonso for second, with Verstappen easily opening up a gap out front.
Sainz impressively fought back through the field to move up to fourth, while Perez eventually advanced to seventh after being surprisingly held up by Norris for a significant period.
An exciting finale between Hamilton and Alonso looked to set to ensue with the Aston Martin trying to close within DRS range, while Verstappen provided a moment of drama as he ran wide onto the grass at the final corner with 10 laps remaining – but he still looked to be cruising to victory with a lead of more than seven seconds.
However, Magnussen hit the wall on the exit of Turn 2, leaving a wheel rim on the track – and once more a safety car was sent out, before the FIA threw another red flag, which Verstappen questioned the merits of both during and after the race.
As the drivers made their way back to the pit lane once more, it was suddenly apparent that Verstappen and Hamilton would be lining up for a two-lap sprint to the finish from a standing start, triggering memories of the controversial climax to the 2021 season when the Dutchman claimed his maiden drivers’ title after similar late drama.
Hamilton got a better start than Verstappen once more, but the Dutchman got across the track quickly enough to cut off the Mercedes, holding the lead into the first corner.
However, any further sparring between the pair was prevented as chaos ensued behind them after Sainz ran into compatriot Alonso.
It was the contact behind them that caused a red flag, with Gasly, who went off track at the first corner along with Perez, making his way back onto the tarmac and forcing Alpine team-mate Ocon right, until they made contact and both slammed into the barrier.
Further back, Williams lost their other car as rookie Logan Sargeant ran into the back of Nyck de Vries’ AlphaTauri.
While the Alpines, Sargeant and De Vries were forced to retire, Alonso and Sainz made it back to the pits, before the debate began over what would happen with the one remaining lap of the race.
After a lengthy delay, the decision to return to the circuit in the pre-restart order was made, before confirmation of Sainz’s five-second penalty came through, leading the Ferrari driver to express his extreme frustrations over team radio.
Those behind Sainz ensured they stayed on his tail on the final circuit, which was taken behind the safety car until it pulled in at the last corner, with each of the eight cars trailing the Spaniard managing to stay within the five seconds required to leapfrog him.
Ahead, Verstappen, Hamilton and Alonso all appeared satisfied to have ended a challenging afternoon on the podium, with the trio sharing respectful exchanges after exiting their cars.
Due to the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix, there is now a four-week break until the 2023 Formula 1 season resumes with the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at Baku’s stunning street circuit.
The action is all live on Sky Sports F1 from April 28-30, with Sunday’s race at 12pm.
Between now and then, we will be bringing you all the latest F1 news via the Sky Sports app and website.