Controversies off the track follow Formula 1 to Australia for the season’s 3rd Grand Prix


For the third Formula 1 Grand Prix in a row, controversies off the track are threatening to overshadow the almost predictable action on it. News this week ahead of the Australian GP that the FIA’s Ethics Committee had cleared its president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, from “interference of any kind” at two F1 events last year was followed quickly by a social media post from Susie Wolff, director of the all-female series F1 Academy and who is married to Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, announcing that she had filed a criminal complaint in the French courts against the sport’s governing body for statements made about her in December.

It’s all against the backdrop of the ongoing furore surrounding Red Bull Racing and its team principal Christian Horner. Mercedes’ star, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, was quick to support Wolff’s legal action. “I think she’s so brave, and she stands for such great values,” Hamilton said Thursday at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit. “She’s such a leader. And in a world where often people are silenced, for her to be standing up sends such a great message.”

The off-track issues continue at Red Bull Racing, where a recently suspended team employee has exercised the right to appeal Red Bull’s clearance of alleged misconduct by Horner and filed a formal complaint with the FIA. The chatter about Red Bull at Albert Park, therefore, hasn’t been about its all-conquering RB20 car, which has secured perfect 1-2 results at the season-opening events in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but whether Max Verstappen was preparing to leave for Mercedes.


“I’m happy within the team,” the three-time F1 world champion said Thursday, rejecting speculation about a switch. “Of course, it’s very important that we try to keep the key players in the team for a longer period of time because that’s where the performance is. And at the end of the day, it’s a performance business.” Verstappen is the favorite Sunday to take his third straight win for 2024, his second at the Albert Park track in as many years, and his record-equaling 10th straight that dates to last year’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Verstappen was second-fastest in the first of Friday’s two practice sessions at Albert Park, finishing .018 seconds behind McLaren driver Lando Norris’ time of 1 minute, 18. 564 seconds. Mercedes’ George Russell was third-fastest, .033 behind Norris. The top seven cars were separated by a tenth of a second. Ten minutes were lost during the one-hour session after Alex Albon lost control and slammed into a wall, escaping without injury but damaging his Williams.

Sergio Pérez, who was sixth-fastest in the first practice, is again expected to follow Verstappen home for another 1-2 Red Bull finish, with the Mexican driver in far more stable form than last season. Ferrari remains its closest rival to the Red Bulls, with Charles Leclerc, fourth-fastest in the opening practice, hoping to lock out the front row with Verstappen for the sixth straight event and be more competitive in the Melbourne race.

“We’re in a better situation compared to last year,” Leclerc said. “However, we are speaking about maybe four tenths (of a second) a lap in the race, which is still significant. I am more optimistic, not looking at the gap, but more looking at the overall situation at the team . . . ” Ferrari’s performance here could be compromised after Carlos Sainz declared he’s ready to return to the cockpit, but not feeling 100% after surgery for appendicitis ahead of the last race in Saudi Arabia.

The Spanish driver, who is out of contract at the end of the season, with Hamilton set to take his drive from 2025, said there’s a chance he could be replaced for the second straight race by Ferrari’s standout reserve driver Oliver Bearman, who is in Melbourne racing in F2. “I’m not stupid, and if I don’t feel good tomorrow – I will be the first one to raise my hand and say that I need another two weeks until the next race,” Sainz said.

McLaren says it’s in a contest with Mercedes to be F1’s third-fastest team, meaning Oscar Piastri is more likely than Australian countryman Daniel Ricciardo to finish on the podium on home soil. Ricciardo is racing for mid-grid team RB, known last year as AlphaTauri and the second team owned by Red Bull. “I think we’re both going to need some good fortune to end up on the podium,” Piastri said. “But yeah, it would be very, very special.” There’ll be a third practice session Saturday ahead of afternoon qualifying. The 58-lap race Sunday should be held in clear weather, with a favorable forecast for the weekend.