Charles Leclerc wins Australian Grand Prix to extend his F1 championship lead

Leclerc completed an impressive lights-to-flag victory with Sergio Perez runner-up.
Charles Leclerc wins Australian Grand Prix to extend his F1 championship lead

By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent

Charles Leclerc won the Australian Grand Prix to extend his lead in the Formula One championship.

Leclerc completed an impressive lights-to-flag victory with Sergio Perez runner-up, 20.5 seconds back, and George Russell third. Lewis Hamilton finished fourth.

World champion Max Verstappen failed to reach the chequered flag for the second time in three races after his Red Bull expired with 19 laps remaining.

Leclerc, a two-timer winner this season, is now 34 points clear of second-placed Russell in the standings. Hamilton is fifth, 43 points adrift.

Hamilton started fifth and moved up two positions to third at the start.

The seven-time world champion drew alongside Lando Norris within metres and then moved ahead of Perez after out-braking the Mexican heading into the first corner.

While Leclerc held off Verstappen to lead, there was drama for his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz. Following a poor qualifying, Sainz started ninth, dropped to 14th and went in too hot to Turn 9, running across the grass and then sliding into the gravel.

With Sainz’s Ferrari beached in the sand trap, the safety car was deployed before the race re-started on lap seven.

Three laps later, Perez, in his superior Red Bull machinery blasted past Hamilton to take third, with a Russell-led train forming behind the 37-year-old Mercedes driver.

Hamilton appeared to be struggling, but as the lap counter ticked down, he began to find confidence in his Mercedes. By lap 20, Hamilton had reeled Perez back in, and was crawling all over the Red Bull gearbox before Perez stopped for fresh rubber. Hamilton stopped two laps later and emerged ahead of Perez for a net third.

But Hamilton could not get heat into his new tyres, and Perez outgunned him on the run down to Turn 11 to regain the position. Hamilton was set to launch another attack when the safety car was sent out for a second time.

Sebastian Vettel, who crashed out of final practice and then qualified only 18th, was in the wars again. The four-time world champion ran on to the rumble strip on the exit of Turn 4, lost control of his Aston Martin, and careered into the wall.

Russell took advantage of the safety car to change tyres, promoting him from fifth on the road to third, and ahead of Hamilton.

“George benefitted from the safety car,” Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington told him on the radio.

Hamilton replied: “What does that mean? I have lost a position?”

“Affirm,” said Bonnington. “It is just bad luck, Lewis.”

The safety car came in at the end of lap 27. Verstappen sensed an opportunity to move ahead of Leclerc, but the Ferrari driver rebuffed the world champion’s advances.

Russell was soon under pressure from Perez.

“If you are hurting the tyres to keep Perez behind, you can let him by,” came the message from the Mercedes pit wall.

“That is not what I want to hear,” Russell replied. And on lap 36, Perez got the job done.

Red Bull looked set to have both their drivers on the podium, but trouble struck for Verstappen when he came to a sudden halt.

That promoted Perez to second and Russell on to the podium. Hamilton finished fourth and said in the closing laps: “You guys put me in a really difficult position.”

Lando Norris finished fifth, one spot ahead of McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Leclerc, who also set the fastest lap, said: “What a car today. I did a good job, but it was not possible without the car. We were extremely strong, and I am just so happy. Incredible to win here.

“We are only at the third race so it is difficult to think about the championship. But we have a strong car and a reliable one, and if it continues like this, we have a chance for the championship.”

Russell said: “We capitalised from others’ misfortune. We got lucky but we take it. There is so much hard work going on to get us back to the front, so to stand on the podium is special.

“We are never going to give up. We are going to keep fighting. We have been a long way behind our rivals this weekend, but we are on the podium.

“We want to fight these boys in blue and red. They are a long way ahead, but if anyone can, Mercedes can.”

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