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Horrendous home GP for Ferrari

Charles Leclerc took victory in Australia before Ferrari suffered a setback in front of its Tifosi at Imola.

After the opening two rounds in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Ferrari's Charles Leclerc held a 12-point lead over teammate Carlos Sainz atop the driver's standings while the Prancing Horse led the constructor standings by 40 points over Mercedes.

Next was the Australian Grand Prix which took place 1,120 days after F1 last went racing Down Under in 2019. Sebastian Vettel made a return after he missed the opening two races with Covid.

Leclerc was fastest in qualifying, by three-tenths to Max Verstappen, and took Ferrari’s first pole in Australia since Kimi Räikkönen did in 2007. Sergio Perez and Lando Norris shared the second row at lights out, ahead of the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

Leclerc had the better start and duly kept Verstappen behind him, whilst Hamilton made headway sweeping past Perez and Norris into P3. It was a frustrating weekend for Sainz who only managed to qualify in P9, and after suffering a poor start to the race he spun out on the second lap, effectively ending his 17-race points streak which stretched back to the Styrian GP in June last year.

Perez got by Hamilton on lap 23, the same lap Vettel retired from the race after spinning into the barriers and the safety car emerged. Racing resumed on lap 27 as Leclerc led Verstappen followed by Russell, Fernando Alonso, Perez and Hamilton. Lap 36 saw Perez overtake Russell and three laps later Verstappen pulled over to the side of the track with power unit troubles, requiring a virtual safety car to neutralise the race.

With Verstappen’s DNF, the remainder of the 58-lap race was relatively smooth going for Leclerc and he took the chequered flag by 20 seconds over runner-up Perez. Ferrari claimed its third win in the last four races in Australia, after Vettel won at Albert Park in both 2017 and 2018. Leclerc completed a rare ’grand slam’ consisting of pole, race win, fastest lap, and leading every lap – the first time a Ferrari driver achieved this feat since Alonso at Singapore 2010.

Mercedes have not been at their potent best this year but Toto Wolff’s team capitalised on the shortcomings of Verstappen as Russell rounded off the podium and Hamilton followed his teammate home in P4. McLaren took its first double-points finish of the year with Norris P5 and Daniel Ricciardo close behind.

The results meant Leclerc opened up a 34-point cushion in the Driver’s Championship, the largest gap after three races since Nico Rosberg led Hamilton by 36 points in 2016.

Australian GP: TOP 10

A fortnight after the weekend in Melbourne the grid turned its attention to the Emilia Romagna GP. Ahead of a home race for Ferrari at Imola, the Italian constructor announced a two-year contract extension for Sainz, running through until the end of 2024.

This was the first of three sprint races this season with the weekend format adjusted accordingly. Verstappen went fastest in Friday qualifying, seven-tenths quicker than Leclerc, after there were as many as five red flags across the three quali sessions.

With no mandatory pit stops the vast majority of drivers – bar Kevin Magnussen, Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi – started the sprint on soft tyres. Leclerc got a better start off the line and took the lead from Verstappen immediately after lights out on Saturday.

The safety car was out following an opening-lap kerfuffle between Guanyu Zhou and Pierre Gasly which spelled the end of the sprint for the Alfa Romeo. Racing resumed on lap 5 and soon after Perez and Sainz had each climbed three positions into P4 and P7, respectively. Perez then catapulted past Norris into P3, while Sainz leapfrogged both Magnussen and Ricciardo on successive laps into P5.

After a four-lap scrap for the lead, Verstappen passed Leclerc on the penultimate lap and the Red Bull driver held on for the chequered flag to bag an additional eight Championship points. Leclerc and Perez completed the top three followed by Sainz who chased down Norris in the final stages of the 21-lap sprint.

The front two rows on Sunday were occupied by Ferrari and Red Bull, the McLaren duo of Norris and Ricciardo filled the third row while both Mercedes cars started outside the top 10. A damp track saw the entire field begin the Grand Prix on intermediate tyres.

64,000 people packed into the grandstands, mainly in Tifosi colours, as both Ferraris suffered poor starts off the line. Leclerc was instantly passed by both Perez and Norris, and Sainz incurred a DNF for the second successive race – much to the dismay of the live spectators – after he was caught up in a racing incident with Ricciardo at the first corner.

The safety car led the pack as the stricken Ferrari was cleared from the gravel, by which time Magnussen had gained three places up to P5 and Russell climbed five spots to P6. Vettel also made gains, moving up four positions into P9.

Similarly to fellow Spaniard Sainz, Alonso was forced to retire after a collision with Schumacher in the early stages of the race. Leclerc, meanwhile, reclaimed P3 from Norris on lap 8. Towards the quarter-way mark, Russell and Valtteri Bottas each made their way past Magnussen, and Leclerc was closing in on Perez who gave his utmost to protect teammate Verstappen out in front.

Perez was among the first cars to fit dry tyres, switching to mediums on lap 18 before Verstappen and Leclerc followed suit one lap later. Leclerc emerged from the paddock ahead of Perez, albeit the Red Bull instantly displaced the Ferrari and subsequently put some breathing room between them.

In spite of dry tyres as well as a dry racing line, DRS was not enabled until lap 34 of 63. A somewhat bizarre sight came to life almost two-thirds into the race when Hamilton, running P14, was overlapped (!) by Verstappen on lap 41.

Into the final quarter of the race, Leclerc changed to soft tyres in an attempt to clock the fastest lap and knick an extra point off Verstappen. Perez did likewise also swapping for the red-striped compound and Leclerc was right on the tail of the Mexican when he exited the pits. Unfortunately for the Prancing Horse, Leclerc spun at the chicane in the final sector and effectively lost six places but the Monegasque driver recovered three positions in the closing laps. Understandably Leclerc was bitterly disappointed at how the weekend had  panned out.

Verstappen raced to the finish line 16,5 seconds ahead of Perez who completed a 1-2 finish for Christian Horner’s team, the first of its kind since 2016 in Malaysia. Norris completed the top three for McLaren’s first podium placement this year.

Russell earned a commendable P4 after a mostly miserable weekend for Mercedes. Russell fended off Bottas during the final laps in what was a reverse scenario of last year’s event at Imola where the two drivers collided and both dropped out of the race.

Bottas took P5, his best result since switching to Alfa Romeo, ahead of Leclerc and Tsunoda. Hamilton finished outside the points for just the 12th time in his 16 years in the sport, for what was the culmination of a dour weekend in the Mercedes garage.

For the second time in as many race weekends, eight teams finished inside the points in Sunday’s main race – more than the six in Bahrain and seven at Jeddah. Vettel and Stroll both earned top ten finishes for Aston Martin to collect its first points of 2022, making this the first year since 2019 in which all teams have scored points over the course of the season.

Verstappen racked up a maximum 26 points on Sunday and together with his tally from the sprint, the defending World Champion took home 34 points from Imola. Adding to Perez’s P3 in the sprint and P2 finish in the Grand Prix, Red Bull gathered a whopping 58 points at the Emilia Romagna GP.

A perfect weekend for Verstappen means Leclerc's Championship lead has been sliced from 34 points down to 27. After the opening four races this year, 9 of the 12 podium places have been occupied by either Ferrari or Red Bull. Leclerc and Russell are the only drivers to score points in every race so far.

Emilia Romagna GP: TOP 10

The next race will be the inaugural Miami Grand Prix on May 8, and a fortnight later the grid makes its way to Spain before heading to the crowned jewel of the F1 calendar at Monte Carlo the following week.

Ahead of the race weekend in Florida, Ferrari sit just 11 points clear of Red Bull.

Leclerc leads the WDC by 27 points

All teams are on the board after just 4 races

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