Max Verstappen collected his first Formula 1 victory in Australia as he overcame a troubled start and controversial end to triumph on a frenetic Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.
Lewis Hamilton briefly led but had to make do with trailing home second to secure Mercedes’ first podium of the year, while Fernando Alonso survived being caught up in an incident-ridden restart to ensure his run of top-three finishes stretched to three in a row.
The start saw George Russell get a brilliant launch to be in a position to take the lead on the inside of Verstappen at Turn 1, with the reigning champion dropping to third when the sister Mercedes of Hamilton also slid down the inside of the Red Bull at Turn 3.
Further back Charles Leclerc’s nightmare start to the season continued as his attempt to make up early ground worked out less successfully than it had for the front-running Mercedes duo.
The Ferrari man’s endeavour to go around the outside of both Aston Martins ended with him spinning backwards into the gravel and out of the race after being tagged by Lance Stroll.
Replays showed that Stroll was pinched in the middle of the track and had nowhere to go, leading to the stewards taking no further action on the incident.
The beached Ferrari brought the intervention of the Safety Car, resulting in many drivers making an early stop for a change of tyres. That included the pit lane starting Sergio Perez, who disposed of the Hard compound for the Medium before switching back again.
Russell nailed the restart once the Safety Car came in at the end of Lap 3 but any efforts to build his lead were soon halted by another neutralisation of the race four laps later.
Alex Albon, who had made a storming start to be running sixth after his excellent qualifying, lost his car at Turn 7 and crashed out of the race to ensure a repeat of his point-scoring heroics from last year’s event wouldn’t be repeated on this occasion.
With the Safety Car making a second appearance inside 10 laps race leader Russell and Carlos Sainz took advantage to make their first stop of the afternoon.
However, a decision to bring out the red flag and allow those who hadn’t pitted – most notably Hamilton and Verstappen – to change their tyres without any time loss meant Russell dropped six places to seventh for the race’s eventual restart.
After a short delay, another standing start was in order and Hamilton got away perfectly to hold off Verstappen and retain the lead he had inherited from his team-mate’s misfortune.
Russell got away strongly again to move back ahead of Stroll as Nyck de Vries and Valtteri Bottas got caught up in various incidents at the back.
Within four laps of the race resuming Verstappen powered past Hamilton on the long run down to Turn 11 to regain the lead and immediately set about pulling a two-second gap over his former title rival in a matter of corners.
Following a storming start, Mercedes’ race continued to unravel further as Russell ground to a halt on the start-finish straight at the start of Lap 18 with fire billowing from the rear of his car.
There would be no bunching up of the pack, however, as this time it was the turn of the Virtual Safety Car to interrupt proceedings.
On the return to green flag conditions, Perez continued to utilise Red Bull’s exceptional efficiency in a straight line with DRS opened to haul himself into the points by Lap 22.
Having missed out by pitting before the Red Flag, Sainz, meanwhile, pulled off a nice dummy move on Pierre Gasly into Turn 3 to sit fifth before the halfway point.
After several laps spent staring at the back of an AlphaTauri, Piastri’s hopes of achieving a point on his home debut appeared to be dashed by Esteban Ocon making light work of the McLaren, with the slippery, pink-liveried Alpine dispatching with Tsunoda shortly after.
Elsewhere, Nico Hulkenberg and Lando Norris diced valiantly for eighth place as the Haas driver began to struggle increasingly on worn rubber. On the third attempt the McLaren man eventually made the move stick.
The other Haas of Kevin Magnussen had been an anonymous figure but made his mark on the race when he parted ways with his right rear tyre to prompt a second complete stoppage with only three laps remaining on the clock.
Unlike the stagnant ending that occurred behind the Safety Car at Monza last year, the stewards elected to resume the race with a standing restart for a two-lap shootout.
As Verstappen and Hamilton got away cleanly once more, mayhem ensured behind them as Alonso got tagged around by Sainz to tumble down the order, along with the other Aston Martin of Stroll, who slid off at Turn 3 trying to keep ahead of the Ferrari for the final spot on the podium.
Gasly had been involved in that battle for third but dropped back after an off-track excursion before rejoining clumsily and collecting his team-mate to put both Alpines out of the running.
However, another red flag disturbance for the carnage at Turn 1 created confusion on whether the race would be restarted and in what order.
Eventually, the FIA opted to return to the same starting grid that was in place before the race got underway again, involving the remaining 12 drivers trundling around behind the Safety Car to complete the final lap of the grand prix.
Therefore, Verstappen sauntered to the chequered flag unopposed to take the 37th win of his F1 career and finally end his Australian hoodoo.
Hamilton crossed the line close behind in second for a 10th podium in Melbourne, as Alonso maintained his flawless podium-scoring streak for Aston Martin.
Sainz in the sole remaining Ferrari was fourth on the road but received a five-second time penalty for his earlier misdemeanour in spinning Alonso round and dropped outside of the points.
Although Perez’s charge up the order was stymied, the Mexican racer was promoted up the order to eventually finish fifth from the back of the grid behind Stroll, who returned to the points after retiring in Saudi Arabia.
Lando Norris impressively got McLaren off the mark for 2023 in sixth, with Piastri also notching his maiden F1 points on his home debut in eighth.
Hulkenberg followed up his stellar qualifying with an assured drive to seventh for his first points since he made his comeback with Haas, while Zhou Guanyu and Yuki Tsunoda also ended up inside the top 10.
Verstappen’s victory combined with Perez recovering to fifth – plus the fastest lap point – means the two Red Bull drivers are separated by 15 points in the Drivers’ Championship, while the team boast a healthy 58 lead over its nearest challengers, Aston Martin, in the Constructors’ standings.
F1 now embarks on a four-week break before the fourth round takes the drivers and teams to Baku for the sixth running of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.