In the past seasons of Formula One, I've always believed the first six races give out a clear indication of the pecking order. By that time, the title favorites, the best of the rest, the midfield runners, and of course, the team that will languish at the back of the grid are already determined.
We're only three races into the 2022 season. As expected, the results are still mixed up. And with new rules in place, sorting out the grid order could take longer than expected. However, in spite of this, one picture is already starting to emerge this early in the season – who's going to be the title favorite.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc won the Australian Grand Prix over Sergio Perez and George Russell. That makes it two wins out of three races for the Monegasque, and already a 34-point lead heading into the next race in Imola.
Now with a little bit of reference – Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were never separated with that big of a margin during their duel for the title last year. It'll be interesting to see how Leclerc's rivals could claw back the deficit, especially with the early season form he's showing.
Melbourne used to be the first race of the season, and it's a track where teams usually have one-off upswings and downswings in their performance, which made the weekend all the more interesting. While the racing action made me dozier than the previous two races, it still provided plenty of interesting stories to pick up, and we'll talk about that in this feature.
Leclerc scores the grand slam
As mentioned, it was Charles Leclerc who claimed victory, but the way he won it was completely different. Max Verstappen even admitted he was never in a position to challenge the Ferrari driver for the lead, except for the safety car restart. As a result, the Monegasque dominated and scored a grand slam.
In Formula One terms, the grand slam means you've clinched pole position, posted the fastest lap, and led from start to finish. The last time a Ferrari driver did that was back in 2010 when Fernando Alonso won the Singapore Grand Prix. We haven't seen Ferrari perform like this in a long while, to be honest.
The first three races had three different circuit characteristics, but the F1-75 proved to be fast in all of them. If Leclerc's early-season form continues, and if the F1-75 continues to be a quick and reliable package, then their combination will be really hard to beat this season.
Red Bull's teething problems have returned
Sergio Perez might have brought 2nd place for Red Bull in Melbourne, but there should have been two Red Bull drivers on the podium. Max Verstappen was in for an easy 2nd place finish. But at the start of lap 39, his RB18 expired, and the reigning world champion was forced to retire.
Instead of clawing back the deficit to Ferrari, and Verstappen staying within striking distance to Leclerc in terms of points, Red Bull lost more due to problems with their power unit. But as Christian Horner said, it's better that they are in a position to make a fast car reliable, than to make a reliable car fast. Still, they better do it quickly, as Ferrari (and Mercedes) won't be waiting for them.
Red Bull's (and Ferrari's) loss is Mercedes' gain
The reigning world champion's 2022 challenger, the W13, is not yet on the level of Ferrari and Red Bull's F1 cars in terms of pace. But when one (or two) of those teams hit trouble, they will be ready to take advantage. Despite their issues, they currently hold second in the constructors' championship, and the same goes in the drivers' championship with George Russell who scored his first podium with the German team.
Perhaps this is a tale of two teams; Red Bull has a fast but fragile car, while Mercedes is lagging pace-wise but has solid reliability. For now, the latter seems to work better. But the question is for how much longer?
McLaren has made a step forward
If I were to award the most improved team in Melbourne, then my pick goes to McLaren. They went from finishing 14th and 15th in Bahrain, to bringing both cars home 5th and 6th in Melbourne. The Woking team finally had a solid weekend with a good points haul.
But as I have mentioned earlier, a good showing in Melbourne does not always carry over to other tracks in the calendar. Nevertheless, here's to hoping McLaren has understood how their car works and starts fighting for podiums if not wins soon.
Sainz the not-so-smooth operator
While Charles Leclerc had a dominating weekend, his teammate Carlos Sainz had a miserable one - or should I say, the smooth operator, didn't have such a smooth weekend. After being affected by the red flag session in Q3, Sainz only started 9th on the grid. His woes continued when he dropped to 14th at the start, then, later on, spun off and got beached in the gravel trap while trying to overtake in the midfield.
This caused Sainz to end his run of 17 races in the points, and a 31-race finishing streak which was the longest active streak in F1 so far. But still, he remains third in the standings, and there are plenty more races to bounce back for the Spaniard.
Vettel and Aston Martin's weekend to forget
Sebastian Vettel has returned to Melbourne after being sidelined in the past two races. However, the four-time world champion had a weekend to forget after a series of issues topped off by a crash in the main race that brought out the safety car. Perhaps, his only highlight of the weekend was a trip to the pits using a scooter (with his helmet on top of his head a la kamote rider) that handed him a GBP 5,000 penalty.
His teammate, Lance Stroll, collided with Nicholas Latifi during qualifying, and basically had no pace in the race to challenge for points. On top of that, the Canadian driver was handed a time penalty for weaving on the straights that dropped him further down. This makes the British team the only one yet to score points in the season. In addition, having the Aston Martin safety car being called by drivers “slow as a turtle” didn't help either.
Albon the tire whisperer
Ever since Pirelli entered F1 as a tire supplier, they've always faced heavy criticisms regarding their tires' durability. There were instances in the past of unexpected tire blowouts, and at one point, they even had to redesign the tires in the middle of the season. But for 2022, one driver has proved Pirellis are no longer “cheese” tires and could last (almost) the whole race distance.
Alex Albon scored Williams' first points of the season by pulling off a bizarre strategy – drive the race on hard tires for 56 laps, and on the final lap, pit in for softs to prevent being penalized. Fortunately, the gamble has worked, and Albon finished 10th. To add to that, his post-race exchange with Lando Norris about the race was nothing short of gold.
Midfield winners and losers
Together with Aston Martin, there were some other teams that didn't get it right in Melbourne, with Haas being the first team that crossed my mind. The American team had both cars finishing the race but was not where they were in Bahrain and Jeddah. As a result, they found themselves unable to score points this weekend.
Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, was close to having both cars in the points, with Bottas finishing 8th and Zhou 11th. The other two teams that only had one car scoring points were Alpine and Alpha Tauri, as Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly finished 7th and 9th, respectively.
To sum it up, the 2022 Australian Grand Prix was just as unpredictable as the first two races. The element of surprise remains alive, especially since it's been three out of three races this year that the Safety Car was deployed. We all knew how much of a factor that was last season.
Sooner or later, teams will have figured out their cars' handling and reliability issues, and processional races could happen in the future. But in the meantime, let's enjoy the season's twists and turns that make every RAWE CEEK worth watching. Oh sorry, RACE WEEK.