Max Verstappen held off a revived Lewis Hamilton to steer his Red Bull to a chaotic win at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday and tighten his grip on the world championship.
The world champion began from pole and despite being passed by Mercedes pair George Russell and Hamilton at the start, he kept his cool to win a race red flagged three times, with multiple crashes.
Hamilton came home second ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who made it three podiums from three this year.
“We had a very poor start, lap one I was careful as I had a lot to lose,” said Dutchman Verstappen, who won the season-opening race in Bahrain and came second in Jeddah a fortnight ago.
“After that, the pace of the car was quick. With these red flags, I don’t know, I don’t really understand. It was a bit of a mess but we had good pace and we won, so that’s important.
It was a disastrous day for Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, last year’s winner, who spun out on the first lap, while Russell’s car caught fire on lap 19 and his race too was over.
Victory was Verstappen’s maiden win in Melbourne and Red Bull’s first in Australia since Sebastian Vettel’s 2011 triumph.
His teammate and winner in Saudi Arabia Sergio Perez sliced through the field to come fifth after qualifying last due to brake issues, behind Lance Stroll in the other Aston Martin.
The Red Bull triumph came despite unbelievable late drama that saw a red flag come out when Verstappen had a comfortable lead from Hamilton and Alonso with two laps left, meaning they had a bunched restart for an all-out attack to the finish.
But it descended into chaos when Alonso was clipped by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz as they jostled for position and sent into a spin, which caused a flow on effect with multiple other cars coming to grief.
Sainz was given a five-second penalty, eventually finishing 12th, and the race stopped again.
It resumed after a lengthy delay for single lap behind a safety car — with no overtaking allowed — in the order of the previous start with only 12 cars left.
“I didn’t expect to be second so I’m super grateful for it,” said seven-time world champion Hamilton.
“I’m driving as best I can and working as hard as I can but still, considering we’ve been down on performance and in straight pace, for us to be up there fighting with Aston is amazing.”
On a fine day, Lando Norris in a McLaren was sixth, Niko Hulkenberg in the Haas seventh and rookie Oscar Piastri, in the other McLaren, an encouraging eighth on his home circuit.
‘Rollercoaster of emotions’
Alpha Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu came ninth and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda 10th.
“We had a rollercoaster of emotions today, many things going on at the beginning, and the last half an hour,” said Spanish veteran Alonso.
“Mercedes were very fast and Lewis did an incredible job — I could not match the pace, but we’ll take P3.”
With Red Bull’s undeniable speed advantage, it was crucial for Russell and Hamilton to get a strong start.
And they did just that with both scorching past a tentative Verstappen on the first corner before Leclerc spun at Turn 3 and the safety car came out.
They resumed with Hamilton pressing Russell before the safety car was deployed again on lap seven when Williams’ Alexander Albon lost control, leaving gravel on the track, with a red flag eventually needed.
They got underway again from a standing start with Hamilton initially keeping Verstappen at bay.
But it only a matter of time before the Dutchman made his move and he surged into the lead on lap 12.
Once more a safety car was needed when Russell’s car broke down, but Verstappen was in charge now and pulling clear.
By the halfway mark, he was seven seconds ahead with the battle seemingly all about who came second between Hamilton and Alonso.
But there was more drama when Kevin Magnussen lost the rear tyre of his Haas and the red flag came out again at the death.