Our verdict on Red Bull’s Australian GP misery + Sainz excellence

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When Max Verstappen took pole position for the Australian Grand Prix in the face of his biggest challenge yet in 2024, the expectation was surely that the three-time Formula 1 world champion would romp clear on Sunday in similar fashion to the opening two rounds of the season.

Who, then, could have foreseen a comfortable 1-2 for Ferrari – which might well have had Red Bull-troubling pace even without Verstappen’s non-finish – led by a driver who barely two weeks ago was on the operating table having his appendix removed?

How big a shot in the arm is this for F1? How high is Carlos Sainz’s stock right now? And is this actually the first hint that Verstappen might be getting more of what he’s after?

Here are our writers’ biggest takeaways from the Australian GP.

A race – and result – F1 desperately needed

Scott Mitchell-Malm

I don’t really care who wins a grand prix. But surely everyone outside of Red Bull and its fans can enjoy a Carlos Sainz victory?

If I need to make more of a case, I will. He missed the last race because he had surgery to remove his appendix the day he was meant to be qualifying. He’s back racing two weeks later. He’s been dumped by Ferrari for 2025 and beyond. He’s also just a very good driver and a very nice guy.

The Sainz narrative alone makes this a great result. Throw in a race and result F1 desperately needed to break up Max Verstappen’s early-season domination, and it’s a good boost for the wider 2024 narrative given a lot of talk about how boring things have been.

Verstappen and Red Bull definitely aren’t to blame for that. Still, it is nice to have a shake-up once in a while. And few can argue this was not a deserved victory.

One frustrating unanswered question remains

Ben Anderson

I’m frustrated. Not as annoyed as Verstappen, obviously, but really disappointed – because Red Bull’s brake fire denied us the chance to see a proper battle between Verstappen and the Ferraris.

When Sainz – who was absolutely brilliant this weekend – powered around Verstappen’s outside on the second lap, I thought to myself: Finally! It’s game on!

But that move was unrepresentative in reality, owing to Verstappen’s already-hobbled car.

Sergio Perez’s abject performance still suggested maybe Red Bull – and by extension Verstappen – would have struggled to hold on anyway in such a high degradation race where balancing the two axles looked really challenging.

But if Perez was carrying damage then that too is perhaps misleading us.

It was undoubtedly a horrible day for Red Bull, and a brilliant one for Ferrari – and Sainz in particular. But we’ll just never know now whether Verstappen would have walked this race in normal circumstances, or whether this really could have been the first time Red Bull really felt the heat in F1 2024.

Sainz is ready to be Verstappen’s team-mate again

Josh Suttill

Sainz isn’t going to be short of options for his post-Ferrari future.

But I’m hoping Red Bull will make a play to make him Verstappen’s team-mate once more.

He’s proven himself against arguably F1’s best qualifier (Charles Leclerc), a driver Red Bull would love to sign (Lando Norris), and offered Verstappen far closer competition at Toro Rosso than the points difference suggested.

Sainz might be one of the few drivers with the mental strength to survive as Verstappen’s team-mate, having bounced back from both an appendectomy and Ferrari dropping him for next year in utterly brilliant fashion already in 2024.

The behind-the-scenes toxicity of those Toro Rosso days would surely be lessened now both drivers are far more mature and their families are (mostly) less involved.

And who wouldn’t take Sainz over Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo right now? Red Bull’s desperately short of viable options and securing Sainz’s services would give it a solid driver line-up for long enough until another standout Red Bull junior finally emerges.

Red Bull’s biggest task will be convincing Sainz to be Verstappen’s team-mate with potential team leader opportunities at soon-to-be-Audi works team Sauber.

But unlike every other team – including Mercedes at this point – Red Bull can offer Sainz a near-guaranteed race-winning car for 2025 if he backs himself to face another elite F1 driver.

A hint of what Verstappen might be craving

Matt Beer

I didn’t expect Verstappen to be throwing things at walls in response to the way his F1 winning streak ended. He’s still going to be world champion again. He may well still win every other race in 2024. He knows it.

But I’ve had a nagging question for about a year and a half now about how much Verstappen can really, really enjoy dominating F1 with such a margin. I don’t think he’s exactly bored. But he’s such a feisty, aggressive racer and he’s not having to do a lot of racing.

So it was interesting to hear him say that retiring from a race was sort of strangely ‘exciting’. It was at least some variety for him.

F1 feels like a game he’s well and truly mastered, he still enjoys playing it and winning it and puts his best into it, but really he’s completed it and he needs a fresh edition to be released. Then it’ll get really fun again.

For now, Ferrari being a bit closer and his brake catching fire and exploding is at least something a bit different. His comment that as long as he wins the championship at the end of each year he’s not that fussed about win records along the way was telling.

Verstappen clearly doesn’t want to sacrifice victories but he does sound like a man who’d appreciate his route to yet another title being a bit more eventful. Melbourne offered a hint of that.

Ferrari’s got its house in order

Jack Cozens

A word on Carlos Sainz, who really is operating at such a high level right now.

A little too frequently in 2022 he seemed to be a fraction off the pace in the key moments in a way that, particularly when that year’s Ferrari was at its most competitive, gave both Leclerc and Red Bull the edge.

But such instances were much rarer last year, and there’s little sign of them at all now. Sainz might perhaps have thought he could’ve snatched pole on Saturday, but he strung a lap together when it counted (which Leclerc couldn’t do) to bank a front-row start. And that’s ultimately what put him in position to capitalise when that rarest of chances presented itself: an overtake on Verstappen.

The fact that Sainz was there in the first place is the best demonstration yet to me that Ferrari has got its house in order.

The race pace has been tidied up convincingly without sacrificing its biggest strength from the past two years; the one-lap pace is, on the evidence of the first three races of the season, still formidable enough for the Ferrari to be a threat on Saturday without an at-times alarming drop-off a day later.

OK, this doesn’t suddenly transform Ferrari into a title contender. And Red Bull’s advantage over two teams with as much might as Mercedes and Ferrari three years into this ruleset is still disappointing.

But while one of those challengers is floundering, the other is at least proving its on the right path.

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