A flawless Charles Leclerc led from start to finish to steer his Ferrari to an action-packed win at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday with world champion Max Verstappen failing to finish.
The world championship leader from Monaco started from pole, held his position at the first corner and never looked back, scorching round the 58-lap Albert Park circuit to take the chequered flag by a massive 20.5 seconds.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was second with George Russell an encouraging third for the struggling Mercedes and his seven-time world champion teammate Lewis Hamilton fourth.
“It’s amazing, the car was incredible today. What a race and what a pace today,” said Leclerc after clocking a fourth career win and second of the season.
“Honestly, what a car today. I did a good job all weekend but it’s not possible without the car. I’m just so happy. Obviously we have only had three races so it’s difficult to think of the championship but we have a very strong car and a reliable car,” he added.
The Mclarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Riccardo were fifth and sixth.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon came seventh ahead of Valtteri Bottas in an Alfa Romeo, with Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and Alex Albon’s Williams rounding out the top 10.
But there was disaster for Red Bull’s Verstappen, the winner two weeks ago in Saudi Arabia, who pulled over on lap 39 when second, saying on the team radio: “I smell some weird fluid.”
He jumped out with smoke coming from the engine, grabbing a fire extinguisher to help a marshal put out the flames. It was his second retirement in three starts this season.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Aston Martin veteran Sebastian Vettel also failed to finish after spinning out.
Victory consolidated Leclerc’s championship lead after three rounds with the Ferrari ace, who won the opening race of the year in Bahrain, earning the extra point for the fastest lap to add to the 25 for winning.
Horror for Sainz
The Albert Park circuit has been revamped this year for the first time since 1996, promising to be faster and with better overtaking opportunities and it delivered for the fans.
Starting on medium tyres on a fine day, Leclerc got a perfect getaway from his 11th pole in 83 grands prix starts and built a gap of 0.6 seconds on Verstappen after the opening lap.
Hamilton, who started fifth, was a big mover off the grid, powering to third at Turn 1 ahead of Perez and Norris.
But Sainz had a horror day. After starting ninth, he lost traction on lap two, and was lucky not to take out any rivals as he slid across the track and into gravel.
His race was over and the safety car was deployed.
After the restart, Leclerc and Verstappen began consolidating their advantage over Hamilton, growing the gap before Perez grabbed third back from the Briton on lap nine.
Leclerc was storming away, with a 3.3-second lead over Verstappen by lap 12, lapping half a second faster than the Dutchman, who pitted on lap 19 and switched to hard tyres.
Leclerc waited until lap 22 for his tyre change, retaining the lead when he blasted back out 6.9 seconds in front of Verstappen.
The safety car was needed again when Vettel spun and crashed into a wall, leaving debris on the track to cap a horror weekend for the four-time world champion.
Leclerc saw his healthy lead wiped out, but after a bunched restart on lap 27, he again began clocking fastest laps to pull away before Verstappen’s race ended leaving Leclerc alone to cruise to the chequered flag.