Charles Leclerc continued his fine start to the Formula One season on Sunday after the Ferrari driver claimed his second victory by leading from start to finish at the Australian Grand Prix, while Red Bull's world champion Max Verstappen suffered "deja vu" with another retirement.
Leclerc's car showed impressive pace and performance on the upgraded Albert Park circuit to seal his fourth career win ahead of Red Bull's runner-up Sergio Perez. Third-placed George Russell grabbed his second podium and first for Mercedes in an encouraging day for the struggling constructors' champions.
"What a race and what pace," said a thrilled Leclerc on the team radio, having finished more than 20 seconds ahead of Perez in the 58-lap race. "The car was incredible today, well done guys."
Leclerc has now built a 34-point lead over Russell in the F1 championship. He is also the first Ferrari driver since Fernando Alonso in Singapore in 2010 to complete a racing “grand slam,” having claimed the pole position, led wire-to-wire, won the race and also posted the fastest time.
“Honestly, what a car today. Of course, I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car,” he said.
“Obviously we are only in the third race, so it is difficult to think about the championship,” Leclerc added. “But, to be honest, we have a very strong car, a very reliable car too, and for now we have always been there. I hope it continues like this and if it does, we probably have chances for the championship.”
Verstappen was second behind the Ferrari driver when his car suffered a reliability problem and rolled to a halt during his 39th lap with smoke billowing. "I smell some weird fluid," Verstappen said before coming to a stop at turn two.
It was a similar outcome to the season-opener in Bahrain, where Verstappen retired three laps from the end while on course for a second-place finish.
"We are so far behind (Ferrari). We need to finish races," Verstappen said. "It was an easy P2 but we didn't even finish the race – frustrating and unacceptable. These kind of things, if you want to fight for the title, are unacceptable."
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton finished fourth for Mercedes after starting fifth on the grid, having been passed by Russell due to a safety car deployment.
A first safety car was activated a few minutes into the session after Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, who started ninth on the grid after set-up troubles in qualifying, spun out of the race on hard compound tyres.
After skidding into grass, his car spun back onto the track, somehow missing oncoming traffic before coming to a stop in gravel at turn 10. He had narrowly avoided a collision with other cars at the first corner, after falling back to 13th place in a terrible start.
Sebastian Vettel also finished early, locking up on a kerb at turn four before shunting his Aston Martin into a wall and leaving a trail of debris across the track. It capped a forgettable return to racing for the German four-time world champion, who missed the first two races after a positive Covid-19 test.
Vettel's crash saw the safety car deployed again, and Russell capitalised by pitting before rejoining in third place in front of Perez and Hamilton.
Leclerc's lead was wiped out by the safety car and nearly taken as Verstappen swooped after the restart but the Monagesque saw off the Dutchman and built his lead.
Russell fought hard to hold off Perez but was finally passed at the 37th lap. The British driver then held teammate Hamilton off to seal his podium.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth respectively as McLaren showed improvement after a poor start to the season.
Organisers said an estimated 420,000 people were in attendance at Albert Park over the race week, making it the biggest attendance for a weekend sporting event in Australia.