Ferrari’s challenge is just beginning

Charles Leclerc’s dominant win in Melbourne was a consummate display but his Ferrari was truly the class of the field. It is well balanced, versatile, quick through the corners, easy on the tyres and the engine is a powerful beast. Having written off last year and thrown everything into developing this season’s model there must be no little sense of satisfaction at Maranello. The task for Ferrari now is not to throw it away. The challenge for the engineers this season is going to be a fierce development war, as with the new regulations there will be gains to be found all season, and the team that finds them quickest will have the whip hand. Ferrari have been here before in 2017 and 2018 when their car opened as the quickest on the grid but was outpaced by Mercedes’ advances as the season went on, a setback compounded by team and driver errors. If they are to take the title the team have to be firing at maximum capacity on every level in a pressure-cooker environment, a fascinating prospect.

Leclerc confirms his credentials

Leclerc was almost flawless at the front of the field, sealing a grand slam at Albert Park. He is a joy to watch, the 24-year-old enjoys such a light pleasure in driving to the extent of being able to joke with his team over the radio, it is infectious. There is also a natural ease to his skill that has always been present but only now is being given full reign. His win in Bahrain showed both skill and mettle as he faced down Max Verstappen, as did his second place in Saudi Arabia. In Australia what was clear was how controlled he can be when the car is on form. Errors in recent years have done him a disservice, often being caused because he was forced to push so hard with underperforming and poorly handling machinery. This time he has what he needs under him and is a man inspired, comfortable in his confidence and execution. Lewis Hamilton exhibited the same trait when Mercedes gave him their all-conquering ride of recent years.

Albon drives his Williams with aplomb

Alexander Albon’s Williams, in contrast, is off the pace and no easy drive to handle. Albon, in his first year with the team, has come to grips with it with aplomb. At Albert Park he delivered a remarkable performance to wrestle it into 10th place and gain the team’s first point of the season. Having been disqualified from qualifying when Williams were unable to supply a fuel sample, Albon started at the very back. With a long afternoon ahead the team opted to take a chance on him making the best of a bad job. Starting on the hard tyre he stayed out for almost the whole race, working his way through the field. He made the tyres last and kept his pace throughout, such that he held seventh place until he had to take his mandatory stop one lap from the end. He emerged in 10th, a brilliant result, confirming the 26-year-old’s talent and that he has not been phased by his testing and confidence-sapping experience at Red Bull.

Alexander Albon
Alexander Albon did well to salvage a point for Williams in Australia. Photograph: Chris Putnam/Shutterstock

Race directors make their point

The new race directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, who replaced Michael Masi this season, have been forthright in their application of the rules over these opening rounds. Certainly they are stricter over issues such as track limits and impeding – which was pursued vigorously with many reprimands during practice at Albert Park. However before the weekend Wittich issued a further notice, reminding drivers that the wearing of jewellery or piercings while in the car was forbidden for safety reasons, relating to potentially impeding the exit from a car. He followed it up at the drivers’ briefing on Friday by reminding them that they could not wear non fire-retardant underwear. Who and how a check on drivers’ pants will be accomplished has yet to be revealed but Hamilton, for one, appears set for a showdown over being made to remove his bling, particularly his ear rings. “I don’t have any plans on removing them,” he said. “They are personal things. You should be able to be who you are. There is stuff that I cannot move, I literally cannot even take these out. These ones on my right ear are welded in so I would have to get it chopped off. They will be staying.”

Red Bull need wings

Verstappen was scathing in his assessment of his second DFN in three races that it will be impossible to fight for the title if his car cannot finish a race. But the task facing his team is more nuanced than just making their car reliable. Over the opening three rounds Ferrari enjoyed the advantage in two and in Australia the Red Bull’s weaknesses illustrated the complexity of their challenge to match their rivals. Verstappen struggled with the balance through practice, he has not felt truly comfortable with it in qualifying, a discipline in which he excelled last year. With what seems to be a narrow operating window, their tyres are graining easily and finagling their setup for what appears to be a demanding car. It is proving tricky and hard to nail down, especially where compromise is required in order to maximise its performance through tight corners such as in the final sector at Albert Park. They have pace in a straight line without doubt but if it cannot be married to a driver-friendly balance through the corners, Ferrari will leave them behind.