From Monotony to Chaos: The Australian Grand Prix of 2023 Had it All
The Australian Grand Prix of 2023 had its fair share of drama, with two red flags and multiple incidents that greatly impacted the race’s outcome. Despite a somewhat monotonous start, the race quickly became exciting, with Max Verstappen’s potential win jeopardized by an intense restart with only two laps left.
The Australian Grand Prix of 2023 had two red flags, one occurring early in the race and the other towards the end, which greatly influenced the race’s two distinct characteristics.
What people will recall about the race is the excitement and accidents that happened, as well as the intense final moments of a restart with only two laps left, which jeopardized Max Verstappen’s potential win.
Before Kevin Magnussen’s crash at Turn 2, which left debris on the track, the race had become somewhat monotonous, with drivers managing their tyres to preserve them for as long as possible. This was due to the early red flag caused by Alex Albon’s crash at Turn 6, which occurred early enough in the race to make it unlikely that drivers could make it to the end without making another pit stop, even on the harder tyres they switched to during the restart.
Therefore, once Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton using DRS shortly after the restart on lap nine and built a lead of 10 seconds to safeguard against any potential safety car incidents, he was able to ease off the throttle and cruise to maintain his advantage.
The Red Bull car was able to maintain a comfortable enough pace to enable Verstappen to cruise to victory. The focus of the race then shifted to whether Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin could catch up to Hamilton’s Mercedes and potentially challenge for second place with the aid of DRS. However, Alonso had to be careful not to overuse his tyres.
Hamilton, who was also concerned about the state of his tyres, was able to respond just enough to maintain a gap of over a second between himself and Alonso. This meant that Alonso had to regroup and attempt to close the gap again, repeatedly trying to make a move on Hamilton. As a result, the podium looked set to be occupied by Verstappen, with Hamilton and Alonso in close contention for second and third place.
Due to the cautious approach taken by most drivers in managing their pace between the safety car periods, the time gaps between them were not increasing rapidly. This meant that any driver who made an additional pit stop would have lost too many positions to make it worthwhile. As a result, this created a self-enforcing mechanism of strategic stalemate, where drivers were unable to make any significant moves.
However, the excitement of this particular race lay in the anticipation of what could happen during the three standing starts, which were the only opportunities for the expected dominance of Verstappen to be challenged.
At the start of the race, George Russell, who started from alongside Verstappen on the front row, made an excellent start and propelled himself down the inside of the Red Bull car at Turn 1, taking the lead. Verstappen did not resist the move and, in doing so, left himself open to being challenged by the group of Hamilton, Alonso, and Sainz who were following closely behind.
As a result of Verstappen’s move to make room for Russell, the group of Hamilton, Alonso, and Sainz were bunched up as they navigated between the walls, through the kink, and towards the high-risk braking zone of Turn 3. Hamilton then took advantage of Verstappen’s vulnerability and made a decisive move down the inside of the Red Bull driver, just as Russell had done a few moments earlier. Suddenly, Mercedes had both their cars ahead of Verstappen, while chaos ensued behind them.
Lance Stroll found himself in a similar situation to the one he faced during the opening lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix. He was trying to overtake Alonso, who was ahead of him, while also defending against Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari on his outside. However, as Leclerc attempted to outbrake Stroll, they made contact, causing the Ferrari to spin into the gravel and retire from the race. Although Stroll also made light contact with the back of Alonso’s car, neither of the Aston Martins were significantly affected, although Alonso did lose a position to Carlos Sainz as a result. Meanwhile, Hamilton was worried that the contact he had made with Verstappen’s car may have damaged his own front wing, but this turned out not to be the case.
Following the incident involving Leclerc’s Ferrari, a safety car was deployed, and the race was restarted with a rolling start. At this point, the front row of the grid was occupied by Russell in first place, Hamilton in second, and Verstappen in third. Verstappen had not been his usual assertive self during the opening lap of the race because he knew that he did not need to push too hard at that point.
Verstappen acknowledged that he could have been more aggressive at the start of the race but opted not to, as he knew that losing one position was not a significant concern given the pace of his car. Furthermore, his car was quick in all the right areas, and his advantage over Hamilton’s Mercedes, with both using DRS, was around 9km/h, which he used to his advantage.
Russell was instructed to manage his tyres carefully, which meant he was running at a slower pace than Hamilton needed him to in order to keep Verstappen at bay. Hamilton was already alongside him on the fourth lap, which prompted Russell to complain over the team radio. He questioned how he was supposed to preserve his tyres while also fending off his team-mate. The team eventually allowed Russell to pick up the pace, but it appeared to be only a matter of time before Verstappen would overtake both Mercedes drivers.
Before Verstappen could overtake the Mercedes drivers, Alex Albon crashed his Williams car. Albon believed that he had likely overheated his tyre while running on the Turn 5 astroturf, which caused him to spin at Turn 6. This resulted in some close shaves for the drivers immediately behind him as they navigated the dust, and the safety car was deployed.
The safety car also prompted Mercedes to pit Russell from the lead and Ferrari to do the same with Sainz from fourth place. The 10-second advantage gained by making a safety car stop compared to a conventional stop made it an irresistible option for them. This allowed Mercedes to have a foot in both strategic camps, with Russell, as the leading driver, on the likely better strategy.
Russell was surprised to see that Verstappen and Hamilton did not pit during the safety car period. After the pit stops, Russell emerged in seventh place on fresh tyres, with Verstappen and Hamilton just ahead of him. He believed that the race was now theirs to win, saying, “I see no reason why we couldn’t have won the race.”
It is doubtful that Russell’s optimism was well-founded. Verstappen’s pace advantage was such that he could have made up the additional 10-second time loss resulting from not pitting during the safety car period.
Ferrari’s decision to pit Sainz during the safety car period was good news for Alonso, as it put him in close proximity to Verstappen in the safety car queue. This meant that Alonso had an opportunity to challenge Verstappen during the rolling restart.
The race was then red-flagged due to the amount of gravel on the track, and all drivers who had not pitted were allowed to change their tyres for free. This included Hamilton, Verstappen, and Alonso, who all switched from medium tyres to hard tyres. This change in the race’s status severely affected Russell’s chances of success, even before he later retired with a suspected piston failure.
Verstappen had another poor getaway at the second standing start, allowing Hamilton to take the lead unchallenged into the first turn. However, Hamilton was unable to hold on to the lead for long, as Verstappen easily overtook him on the long DRS run towards Turn 9, completing the move by taking the outside line of the entry to the fast left-right. Verstappen quickly pulled out a 2-second lead over Hamilton in the remainder of the lap.
Although Max was intent on getting to the end, there were still 46 laps left to complete. His objective was to build a safety car margin over Hamilton, which he achieved within a few laps, as he pulled away from the Mercedes driver.
According to Christian Horner, the team had prioritized the race performance of the Red Bull car over its qualifying pace. This approach had resulted in a larger performance advantage for the team during the race than what was seen during qualifying. Horner explained that some teams focused more on aggressive tyre warming during qualifying, which could potentially result in poorer performance during the race.
Another potential reason for the Red Bull car’s race performance advantage could be attributed to its suspension geometry and underfloor design. By limiting the movement of the centre of pressure, the car may not dive as much under braking, which could take longer to generate front tyre temperature. However, this only marginally reduces the car’s qualifying performance advantage.
Overall, Verstappen was able to build a comfortable lead during the race and pull away from Hamilton with ease, demonstrating the car’s impressive race pace.
Hamilton remained concerned about the longevity of his tyres throughout the race, especially with Alonso constantly pushing him. However, the team was confident that Hamilton’s tyres would last the distance. Alonso continued to push, at times getting within 1.2 seconds of Hamilton, but he was never quite close enough to engage the DRS. Alonso’s tyres also required him to periodically cool them, which allowed Hamilton to maintain a slim advantage over him. Hamilton was able to respond just enough to Alonso’s challenges and keep him at bay.
During the race, Hamilton and Alonso discussed the pace of their respective cars. Hamilton acknowledged that he believed the Aston Martin was faster than his Mercedes, but he was able to maintain his position. Alonso agreed, stating that being able to stay close usually indicated the potential for greater speed if in front. The drivers also discussed the possibility of making a second pit stop. However, due to the closely packed field, it was determined that making a second stop would cause them to lose five positions. Additionally, the tyre degradation was relatively low, so there was not much of a tyre delta to gain from making a second stop.
The Mercedes had qualified well due to the team’s ability to use the tyres effectively. The team had found that running the car at lower tyre pressures worked well for them, and the smooth surface of this track allowed them to do so. This gave them the crucial track position they needed to beat Alonso, as overtaking around this track requires the type of performance advantage that Red Bull possesses. However, the Mercedes W14 car remains a more challenging vehicle to drive than the Aston Martin.
Sainz had dropped to 11th place due to his pit stop just before the red flag, but he was able to make his way through the field aggressively. He eventually found himself running just a couple of seconds behind Alonso, while pulling Pierre Gasly’s Alpine and Stroll’s Aston Martin in his wake.
Despite starting from the back of the grid, Sergio Perez did not encounter any issues with his brakes, and was able to move up through the field. With just four laps remaining, he was running just a couple of seconds behind Stroll, having overtaken Nico Hulkenberg and Lando Norris. Perez set the fastest lap of the race, but like everyone else, he was heavily managing his tyres throughout.
However, just as Perez was making his charge, Kevin Magnussen had a crash that resulted in a shaving of the wall, causing his tyre to come off and damaging the rim. This led to a safety car, followed by a red flag.
The prospect of a two-lap sprint to the finish on soft tyres was a thrilling one for fans. Verstappen was finally able to get a decent start, with Hamilton tucking in behind him. However, Sainz misjudged his braking and hit Alonso, causing him to spin.
Gasly, who had been having a great race, was forced to lift, causing a chain reaction that led to his teammate Esteban Ocon being wedged between him and the wall. The collision wrecked both Alpines.
The race was once again red-flagged, but there were not enough laps remaining to restart the race. The safety car was deployed to confirm the finishing order based on the timing loop at the SC2 line. Alonso was able to keep his podium position, while Sainz received a 5-second penalty for the incident with Alonso. As a result, his fourth place finish was dropped to 12th.
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