Formula 1: Australian Grand Prix 2023 becomes another race defined by officials’ decisions

Melbourne (BBC): Max Verstappen called it “a bit of a mess”. Fernando Alonso used the word “stupid”. George Russell said one of the decisions was “totally unnecessary”. The Formula 1 drivers did not mince their words about the Australian Grand Prix.

One of the most dramatic, chaotic and bizarre races in memory ended with a predictable win for Verstappen in his Red Bull, a car that is on another planet from the rest of the field. But that was about the only unsurprising aspect of an event that will be added to the increasingly long list of those which have been defined by controversial decisions by the sport’s officials.

A capacity crowd of more than 130,000 people in Melbourne’s Albert Park witnessed a remarkable race packed with entertainment but also one that raised questions about the direction in which F1’s stakeholders have taken the sport in recent years.
Was it sport, or entertainment? Had decisions taken for perfectly reasonable reasons created a perfect demonstration of the law of unintended consequences? The drivers themselves certainly had questions, and admitted they would be raising some of the events of the day when they meet with governing body the FIA at the next race in Azerbaijan at the end of the month.

Sunday’s grand prix was stopped three times – only the fifth time this has happened in 36 years – and on none of the occasions was there unanimity as to whether that was the correct decision.

The first red flag was caused by a heavy crash for Alex Albon’s Williams on lap six of the race, which left the barriers damaged and gravel spread across the track.
This prompted Russell, a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, to say: “I don’t really know what’s going on with some of the decisions. We are all trying to work together with the FIA to improve things but it is a bit of a challenge.”

Some will point out that Russell’s opinion might have been skewed by the fact that he had skin in the game, for he had just pitted for fresh tyres, trying to take advantage of the safety car initially thrown for Albon’s crash. And when the red flag came, it turned what could have been an inspired call – but equally might not have been – into a disadvantage. But Alonso, who was one of the drivers who benefited from that red flag, admitted he was “surprised” by it.

Far more controversial, though, were the decisions at the end of the race, prompted by Kevin Magnussen clouting the wall with his Haas on lap 54 – with four to go – and breaking a rear wheel.

Again there was a safety car soon followed by a red flag. But the timing of the crash left time only for two racing laps. And on the restart there was another crash, and another red flag. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz tipped Alonso into a spin at the first corner, apparently turning the two-time champion’s well-earned third place into zero points. And in the ensuing melee the Alpine drivers Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon – both in the points – crashed into each other.