Not for the past eight races run at Albert Park in Melbourne has a driver starting on pole position finished on the top of the podium. Charles LeClerc changed that detail in history at the Australian Grand Prix. He set up Ferrari’s third strong race in a row in Formula 1’s 2022 season, not only leading the field but clearing it by a fair margin at that without Verstappen in tow.

“I smell some weird fluid. Everything is s*** itself,” the current reigning world driver champion radioed over to his pit on the 39th lap. Even as the instruction from the Red Bull pit garage was to turn the engine off, Max Verstappen had already pulled his car to the side of the road, inspected it and immediately harked the marshals on the side for fire extinguishers as his car was in the early stages of flaming up.

It was not only bitter disappointment for the “Orange army” but also, for legions of Formula 1 fans who have been given a real fillip this season with the wheel-to-wheel aggression between the two young drivers from Ferrari and Red Bull. But while LeClerc is enjoying sunny days and clear skies, Verstappen’s championship is under a cloud.

From the highs from a very controversial Abu Dhabi race, the final race of the season, that saw the 24 year old realise his childhood dream, shared by his father and former Formula 1 driver, Jos Verstappen, Max is tasting the highs and lows of the season rather early. At the moment, Red Bull need to come up with some fast answers over consistency and reliability issues as their no.1 driver has had to abandon two terse battles at the top. Ferrari have been the surprisingly bankable team from the get-go this season after having been down a similar road not a few seasons ago.

Although Carlos Sainz is facing the brunt of a somewhat erratic Ferrari set up, falling out early in Australia, Ferrari are still in decent standing. This only puts additional pressure on Red Bull as well as McLarens and Lando Norris who are yet to fire in 2022 after sizzling in the season past.

Aware of how far ahead LeClerc is on the points table and that he himself is dropping further down behind Russell (37 points), Sainz (33 points), team mate Sergio Perez (30 points) and Lewis Hamilton (28 points), the Belgian-Dutch driver reiterated the obvious concern about defending his title from 2021, “Today was in general just a bad day again. Not really having the pace, I was just managing my tyres to bring it to the end. It looked like quite an easy P2 anyway so there was no point trying to fight Charles.” He added, “It’s frustrating and unacceptable…these types of things, if you’re fighting for the title, cannot happen.”

Verstappen’s second did-not-finish result of the season might have comforted Hamilton’s jangling spirits after last season’s result but only mildly.

From having seen light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in 2022, he was pipped to the post by his own teammate, George Russell, which would have only singed the ageing Brit driver even more in his quest for that elusive eighth world drivers championship title. After all, Hamilton has been inconspicuous from the outset until the Australian Grand Prix and made good on his fifth position on the grid to slip through at the start of the race into third place.

Though that was ruined after Hamilton pitted, this time before the safety car, and slipped from second on track to sixth. To make matters worse, Russell had a little bit of luck to go with his promising start to the season.

Russell was always going to be a challenger to Hamilton. It was obvious in his one stint for Mercedes two seasons ago in 2020. That he is as keen a driver as any champion was obvious when under pressure from Perez, he had to be told over the radio that it is important he pay attention to (car and tyre) management, even if it meant yielding the position to Perez who was all over Russell’s rear view mirrors. Russell’s reply said it all, “Not what I want to hear.”

In another interesting car to pit garage conversation, in what has now become a familiar scenario, his older Brit compatriot was heard grumbling and complaining, and blaming his team for why was finishing outside of the podium top three.

“You guys put me in a really difficult position,” Hamilton was heard telling his team over the radio on the 54th lap with four laps to go. Although Hamilton later clarified that it did not have to do with the timing of Russell’s pit stop, the general assumption all around was that Hamilton was not happy about the timing of when he was pitted, Russell having benefited for having pitted after Hamilton when the safety car came into play on lap 23, propelling the young driver eventually into third place, one ahead of where Hamilton ended up.

However, Hamilton later claimed that it had to do with an issue with his car and him having to back away to get some clean air into his tyres which did not allow him to challenge his team mate for third spot. “Basically, I couldn’t race for position because the car was overheating. So, I had to back off.”

Another veteran driver staring into the tunnel is the four time former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel. From being booted out unceremoniously by Ferrari in 2020 to being a non-starter for the 2022 for the first two races after being down with covid, the Aston Martin driver’s return to the track was eventful but far from fruitful.

Repeated failures for his car on track through practice continued into the race, causing him to not only go off track but to eventually pull to one side which led to safety car and other subsequent issues as things panned out in the course of the race. While it is undoubtedly hard luck on the German, it seems that there is a growing gap between the young drivers. This raises the question whether Vettel still has the stomach for a fight, unable to ward off LeClerc’s rise at Ferrari in the recent past.

To add ignominy to injury, Vettel was fined 5000 Euros for using a marshall’s scooter and riding it on track on the way back to the paddock, without his helmet strapped on, after his car gave out during a practice session. Not surprisingly, the German labelled the fine “a joke”, even inquiring where the money might be put to use.

Meanwhile, such was the chasm between the way LeClerc was driving from pole to finish, it was virtually flawless barring a slight wide move after the release of the safety car which Verstappen couldn’t capitalise on. Not content to leave behind the rest of the pack, barring Verstappen, before the latter’s car gave out mysteriously on the 39th lap, the Monegasque driver was determined to gun his engine for the one extra point for the fastest lap time set. This, while others were merely nursing their seemingly trundling cars to the finish line.

“Are you still awake?” second placed Sergio Perez radioed his crew at Red Bull on the final lap. It had been that kind of race where there was not much else anyone could have done from keeping LeClerc from creating a huge gap of 34 points between himself on 71 points and second best Russell with 37 points after three races.

“Can we go for the fastest lap before traffic please?” LeClerc repeatedly beseeched his race engineer. The eventual advice from the pit crew to their rather eager young driver was on saner lines to focus on taking the car to the chequered flag, telling him there was next to no chance for any driver to improve upon his fastest lap time with five laps to go. In the end, Ferrari were proven right. There was no one to match LeClerc at Albert Park on the day or night.

Leclerc likes idea of reverse races when F1 returns | Daily Sabah