[MELBOURNE] Ferrari's Charles Leclerc claimed his second win of the Formula One season with a thumping, pole-to-flag victory at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday (Apr 10) as Red Bull's world champion Max Verstappen suffered "deja vu" with another retirement.
Leclerc's car was dominant on the upgraded Albert Park circuit as the Monagesque sealed his fourth career win more than 20 seconds ahead of Red Bull's runnerup 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."
Winner of the season-opener in Bahrain, 24-year-old Leclerc has now built a 34-point lead over Russell to emerge as early favourite for the drivers' championship.
Ferrari's celebrations were tempered by Carlos Sainz crashing out shortly after the start, while 4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel of Aston Martin crashed his car on his return after missing the opening races due to Covid-19.
Verstappen was second behind Leclerc when his RB18 car suffered a reliability problem and rolled to a halt during his 39th lap with smoke billowing.
"I smell some weird fluid," said the Dutchman before coming to a stop at turn two.
Yet he would have had little hope of reeling in Leclerc.
"I knew I could not fight Charles so there was no point to try and put pressure on him," Verstappen told Sky. "But we didn't even finish the race so it's pretty frustrating and unacceptable."
It was a similar outcome to the season-opener in Bahrain, where Verstappen retired 3 laps from the end while on course for a second-place finish.
Lewis Hamilton finished fourth for Mercedes after starting fifth on the grid, having been passed by Russell due to a safety car deployment.
McLaren's Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth respectively as the team showed improvement after a poor start to the season.
Sainz, who started ninth on the grid after set-up troubles in qualifying, had a dreadful start then skidded into grass before spinning across the track, somehow missing oncoming traffic before coming to a stop in gravel at turn 10.
Vettel later locked up on a kerb at turn 4 before shunting his Aston Martin into a wall and leaving a trail of debris across the track.
Vettel's crash saw the safety car deployed again, and Russell capitalised by pitting before rejoining in third place ahead of Perez and Hamilton.
Leclerc's lead was wiped out by the safety car and nearly taken out as Verstappen swooped after the restart but the Monagesque saw off the Dutchman and built his lead to the finish.
Alex Albon started 19th on the grid but finished 10th, grabbing a first point for Williams after managing his hard tyres virtually to the finish.
Organisers said an estimated 420,000 people flocked to Albert Park over the race week, making it the biggest attendance for a weekend sporting event in Australia. REUTERS