Sainz leads a Ferrari 1-2 in shock Australian GP
March 26, 2024

Drama bookended the race at the end, too, with George Russell's Mercedes sitting on its side after the Briton was battling with Fernando Alonso. Alonso's defensive moves left Russell changing his driving style, and his slow-speed crash into the Turn 6 barriers ended the race under Virtual Safety Car conditions. The resulting 20-second penalty for Alonso means discussions about F1's Melbourne trip will continue for some time.

The race looked like it would be competitive from early on. Although Verstappen fended off Sainz in the opening corners, he couldn't shake his ex-teammate on Lap 1. A braking problem at Turn 3 was the precursor for Verstappen's later failure, and it allowed Sainz to get close for the long DRS run into Turn 9. A sweeping move around the outside had Ferrari in the lead and Verstappen unable to respond.

Smoke began billowing from the Red Bull's rear, and a panicked "The car is loose" radio from Verstappen confirmed something was very wrong. After spirited fighting despite his right-rear wheel's smoke, the reigning champion accepted defeat at the same point on the track where Sainz had taken the lead one lap earlier. A swift descent through the order as Verstappen limped back to the pits changed the race's complexion as McLaren and Ferrari occupied the leading positions. Sainz led Lando Norris, with Leclerc in third, just in front of home hero Oscar Piastri. Any of the four now thinking victory could be theirs as Verstappen's fiery wheel exploded at pit entry, and it was game on in Melbourne.

Sainz leads a Ferrari 1-2 in shock Australian GP

Pit stops played a vital part in deciding the final order, with Pirelli's tyre compounds opening strategic options. Leclerc and Piastri were the first of the leading pack to stop to get rid of their Medium compound rubber as the Ferrari and McLaren pit crews went head to head. The positions between the pair remained the same, but the undercut hurt Norris, who took his stop five laps after, falling behind both.

Unfortunately for the Bristol-born driver, he might've fared better had he stopped one lap later when compatriot Lewis Hamilton retired. Hamilton's engine gave up on Lap 15 to continue the seven-time champion's miserable start to the season, and the resulting VSC was the opportune time for those who needed to swap Pirelli tyres to do so. Although Norris missed out, Alonso didn't, and the Spaniard jumped from P10 to P5 to sit in front of Russell.

As the leading quartet maintained positions, the overtaking action came from the remaining Red Bull of Sergio Perez. The Mexican started in P6 after a three-place grid drop and was trying to make up positions with his superior speed. Quick passes on Lance Stroll, Russell, and Alonso followed, with Red Bull's pace showing its quality compared to the also-ran midfield hopefuls, but he couldn't close the gap to be in contention for the win and finished in fifth.

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Sainz leads a Ferrari 1-2 in shock Australian GP

McLaren, however, hoped they could secure victory and invoked team orders on Piastri to make way for Norris. It was an unpopular decision from the packed grandstands that dreamt of seeing the Southern Cross flag on the podium, yet the Australian's race pace wasn't as quick as his teammates'. Though Norris couldn't get close enough to attack the leading Ferraris, Piastri ultimately finished 30 seconds adrift of the Brit in P4.

The race looked to settle after the final round of pit stops put all remaining runners on Pirelli's white-ringed Hard compound. Russell chasing down Alonso for P6 was the only on-track fight, yet neither driver would take that sixth-place finish after the Mercedes crashed. The stewards deemed Alonso's driving before the corner where Russell crashed as too dangerous, slamming the Spaniard with a 20-second penalty and three penalty points on his licence.

Despite the drama from the chaotic ending, Sainz navigated through the debris and Russell's sideways Mercedes to storm to a bounce-back triumph that seems stranger than fiction. The Ferrari star is without a drive for 2025 after losing his seat to Hamilton before the season began, had to sit out a race for surgery, then returned with this sublime win. The 2024 Australian GP confirms Sainz as the hottest free agent in the sport and serves as a reminder of much entertainment F1 still has, even in periods of domination.

Sainz leads a Ferrari 1-2 in shock Australian GP
Sainz leads a Ferrari 1-2 in shock Australian GP