Carlos Sainz wins Australian Grand Prix as Max Verstappen suffers shock early exit

Ferrari driver claims third career victory after world champion retires with smoke billowing from his Red Bull, while Mercedes endured a nightmare race

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Max Verstappen's dominance came to a sensational end at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday as Ferrari's Carlos Sainz claimed his third victory after the world champion retired early in Melbourne.

Sainz, who had appendicitis surgery two weeks ago and missed the last race in Saudi Arabia, took the chequered flag 2.3 seconds ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc, with McLaren's Lando Norris a bold third.

But it was a disastrous day for pole-sitter Verstappen, who limped out with smoke billowing from his car after being passed by front-row partner Sainz on lap two.

"I have smoke, blue smoke, fire, fire," the Dutchman said on the team radio before his first retirement in more than two years after what appeared to be a rear brake issue.

It was also a horror race for Lewis Hamilton in his inconsistent Mercedes, with the British seven-time world champion suffering engine failure on lap 17.

To add to Mercedes' woes, teammate George Russell crashed heavily on the last lap with the car ending on its side. Russell climbed out unscathed.

Verstappen emphatically won the opening two races of the season in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in a Red Bull 1-2 and was the clear favourite to make it three from three.

He had been aiming to match his own record set last year of 10 consecutive wins – one more than Sebastian Vettel in 2013 – and was unbeaten in his last 18 starts from pole position.

But while Verstappen was favoured to win, the Ferraris had proved highly competitive in practice and qualifying on the fast and flowing Albert Park track. Despite not being fully fit, Sainz topped Q1 and Q2 to fire a warning shot before Verstappen pounced in Q3.

"P1 baby, it's amazing. Life's a rollercoaster at times," said Sainz, whose seat at Ferrari is to be taken by Hamilton next year.

"Very happy, I felt really great out there. Of course it wasn't easy physically, but I was lucky I was more or less on my own out there and I could manage my pace."

On a fine day, Oscar Piastri in the other McLaren was fourth ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull. Fernando Alonso was sixth ahead of Aston Martin teammate Lance Stroll.

RB's Yuki Tsunoda was eighth, with Haas pair Nico Hulkenburg and Kevin Magnussen rounding out the top 10.

"It feels good mostly for the team of course, first and second didn't happen since Bahrain 2022," said Leclerc. "Carlos has had an incredible weekend to come back from his surgery, he's done an amazing race."

Verstappen made a clean start and pulled clear of Sainz when the lights went out, with Norris holding onto third as they jostled for position. But his lead didn't last with Sainz opening his DRS on lap two to slice past and take the lead.

"I just lost the car – really weird," Verstappen said on the radio, before smoke started pouring out and headed to the pits and retirement.

The race took on a different characteristic with Sainz leading from Norris and Leclerc with Perez down in sixth.

The pit stops began on lap eight with Hamilton coming in, followed by his Mercedes teammate George Russell, with both having started on soft tyres to the mediums of almost everyone else. Sainz pitted on lap 17.

The stops done, Sainz had a 2.6sec lead from Leclerc at the halfway mark, closely followed by Piastri and Norris. With no Verstappen to contend with, the Spaniard gradually built the gap as Norris passed Piastri to move into third.

Leclerc pitted again as his tyres began failing and he came back out in fifth on hards, but with fresh rubber quickly surged back to second.

Sainz also pitted again and retained a narrow lead to cruise home in front of 130,000 fans for his first win since Singapore last year.

Updated: March 24, 2024, 6:40 AM