Lewis Hamilton received an apology from Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after finishing a sorry 13th in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola.

Seven-time Formula One king Hamilton was told by Wolff his car had been "undriveable", and "not worthy for a world champion".

Wolff also said it had been "a terrible race" for the team. That was despite George Russell faring rather better than team-mate Hamilton, coming home in fourth position to collect points.

Hamilton wound up empty-handed and sits seventh in the championship with 28 points from the first four races of the season, already 21 points behind Russell and 58 adrift of leader Charles Leclerc.

To boot on Sunday, there was the embarrassment of Hamilton being lapped by Max Verstappen on lap 40, a sign of the times in their rivalry.

In an exchange over team radio at the end of the race, Silver Arrows team principal Wolff told Hamilton: "Sorry for what you have needed to drive today.

"I know this is undriveable and not what we deserve to score as a result. So we will move from there, but this was a terrible race."

Hamilton replied: "Yeah, no worries, Toto. Let's keep working hard."

Mercedes face a major challenge to match the pace of the Ferrari and Red Bull cars this season, with the next race a fortnight away in Miami.

"We will come out of this," Wolff said.

Speaking later to Sky Sports, Wolff said it had been a "really bad" result for Hamilton.

"He got squeezed by the Alpine, the other two cars undercut and there's just no overtaking when you're in a DRS train," Wolff said.

"We saw from George what the car can do in free air, but we are not good enough for a world champion, not worthy for a world champion. We just need to fix the car.

"I think we are going to look at things for Miami. I think we can make a step in the understanding of the car. It's another day, we just really need to understand more and bring development to the car which will fix the bouncing."

Max Verstappen surged to victory in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and gained ground on Charles Leclerc, who had a costly late spin. 

Having given up on catching race leader Verstappen, Leclerc pitted from third for soft tyres in a bid to take the extra point for the fastest lap away from the Dutchman. 

However, the Ferrari driver lost control at the Variante Alta and sustained damage that forced him to pit again – enabling Lando Norris to take third. 

Leclerc dropped to ninth but recovered to sixth as his championship lead was cut by 18 points, with Sergio Perez making it a Red Bull one-two. 

Verstappen started on pole following his success in Saturday's sprint race and he never surrendered that position, though Leclerc slid down from second to fourth on a wet opening lap. 

The safety car was deployed after Carlos Sainz span out following contact with Daniel Ricciardo, who was nudged from behind by Valtteri Bottas at the Variante Tamburello. 

Leclerc got past Lando Norris on lap eight but was already six seconds adrift of Verstappen, with the Dutchman only building on his lead after changing for slick tyres on lap 20. 

Perez, who quickly regained second after losing out to Leclerc in the pits, produced some excellent defence to keep the Ferrari at bay despite a trip across the grass before DRS was belatedly enabled just after the halfway point. 

Leclerc set the fastest lap but ended up losing track position when he span into the barriers on lap 53, with Verstappen taking the extra point after changing to soft tyres. 

Ferrari's tyre strategy could be key to preventing Max Verstappen from cutting into Charles Leclerc's championship lead after Red Bull's reigning world champion triumphed in the sprint at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Having been passed by Leclerc at the start, pole-sitter Verstappen ensured he will start Sunday's 63-lap race first on the grid after overtaking Leclerc on the penultimate lap of the 21-lap sprint.

Leclerc and the raucous home Ferrari fans were denied a victory to cheer as his right front tyre grained in the closing laps, Verstappen taking advantage by sweeping around the outside into Tamburello.

It meant Verstappen collected eight points while Leclerc took seven to extend his championship lead to 40 points, with Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz his closest challenger after finishing fourth behind Red Bull's Sergio Perez in third.

Ferrari, like most of the grid, were on the soft tyres for the sprint, but Leclerc is unsure what compound they will initially select on Sunday after his fast start resulted in that critical degradation.

He told Sky Sports: "I pushed hard at the beginning to try not to be too vulnerable with Max having the DRS behind and I felt like I paid the price of doing that at the end of the race.

"It felt also like they had maybe something more today and he kept it until the end of the race and overtook me when it mattered.

"We'll work on ourselves for tomorrow and try to maximise our package and hopefully the same start as today without the degradation that we had at the end.

"I think with today's data it will help us make the right decision for tomorrow, but whether we will go for the hard compound or not I'm not sure yet."

Only three drivers went with the medium compound for the sprint, including the Haas drivers of Kevin Magnussen (eighth) and Mick Schumacher (10th), both of whom had impressive pace in the final laps.

And Verstappen conceded he may not enjoy the same fortune on Sunday with the harder compounds set to play a more prominent role.

"The start was very bad. I don't know exactly what happened or why it was so bad, just too much wheelspin," he said at the post-race presentation.

"After that we had to stay calm. It initially looked like Charles was having a bit more pace but I think he ran out of tyres and we could close the gap and go for the move into turn 2.

"I know tomorrow it might be again a bit different, but for sure today it worked out for us to be on this compound, so I'm very happy to have a clean sprint race in the end.

"I'm happy about today, but I know it might be different tomorrow with those other tyre compounds coming into play."

Max Verstappen recovered from a slow start to Saturday's sprint race at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix to prevail and ensure he will start Sunday's race in first.

The Tifosi at Imola are hoping for a weekend-long celebration amid Ferrari's resurgence, led by Charles Leclerc, in 2022.

He was on course to give them something to cheer in the sprint, getting past pole-sitter Verstappen and, for most of the 21 laps, looking set to claim the maximum eight points.

But Leclerc's front right tyre grained in the final laps as Verstappen closed quickly in an impressive Red Bull, the reigning world champion retaking the lead on the penultimate lap to claim victory.

Leclerc extended his championship lead to 40 points as Mercedes' George Russell finished outside the eight points places on another dismal day for the Silver Arrows, while Ferrari's Carlos Sainz moved into second in the drivers' standing as he took fourth behind Red Bull's Sergio Perez.

An abundance of wheelspin at the start saw Verstappen surrender top spot to Leclerc and he was not close to the Ferrari at a safety car restart following a collision between Pierre Gasly and Zhou Guanyu.

But, as Leclerc's right front faded, Verstappen struck a blow for Red Bull as he got himself within a second at the DRS zone on the start-finish straight and swept around the outside of the Ferrari into the Tamburello chicane.

Perez got himself up from seventh to third while Sainz improved from 10th to fourth after his crash in qualifying, with the McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo claiming fifth and sixth.

The final points places went to Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas and Haas' Kevin Magnussen, with Russell and Lewis Hamilton non-factors who will start 11th and 14th respectively.

A frustrated Lewis Hamilton said "each weekend is a rescue" after Mercedes' dismal start to the Formula One season continued with a disappointing qualifying session ahead of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Hamilton finished 13th during an incident-strewn, weather-affected afternoon at Imola on Friday, missing out on Q1.

Mercedes team-mate George Russell, meanwhile, will be in 11th for Saturday's sprint race, which Max Verstappen will start at the front of the grid.

It is the first time Mercedes have had both cars fail to progress from Q2 since the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix.

They were unfortunate, with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz crashing as rain started to fall to end the session prematurely, though it seemed unlikely the Silver Arrows would have made it into Q3 regardless.

Mercedes sit second in the constructors' standings after the opening three races of the season but are 39 points adrift of leaders Ferrari, whose championship-leading Charles Leclerc will start alongside Verstappen on the front row on Saturday.

Red Bull, meanwhile, are just 10 points behind Mercedes, and Hamilton lamented a difficult day on the track.

"It wasn't a great session," the seven-time world champion told Sky Sports. "Came here with optimism and everyone is working hard at the factory, but it is disappointing.

"I think we underperformed as a team today. There are things we should have done, but we didn't. We will work as hard as we can to move up in the sprint race.

"We will just keep working. It is what it is. Each weekend is a rescue."

Reigning champion Verstappen, meanwhile, secured his first pole position of the season, albeit he needs to maintain that in the sprint race to start at the front on Sunday.

He said: "It was tricky out there with the dry/rain. It was very slippery. It was hectic, a long qualifying but of course in the end happy to be here. It is an amazing track and it really punishes you if you make a mistake.

"I am really pleased with pole. It will be different weather at the weekend but a good start.

"Our first three races didn't go to plan, but we will try to have a good weekend here."

Lando Norris spun into the barriers to end Q3 – and the session as a whole – early, but the McLaren driver will start in third place on Saturday.

"I am happy I am top three which is quite a surprise for us," Norris said. "There was a chance at least for us to go forwards even more. The car was feeling good and I was feeling confident. A shame it ended like that, but I am happy.

Leclerc, meanwhile, rued making an error in Q3 as he had to settle for second.

"It was very tricky, especially on the slicks. There were quite a lot of wet patches, and it was all about putting the laps in and waiting for Q3 to put it together," Leclerc explained. "It is frustrating because when it counts in Q3 I made the wrong choice."

Thomas Tuchel declared himself a big fan of Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton after the superstar pair joined a consortium bidding to buy Chelsea.

British motorsport star Hamilton, 37, has earned nearly $500million in his Formula One career, while American tennis great Williams has also acquired major wealth while landing 23 grand slam singles titles.

They will reportedly be chipping in $10m each to Martin Broughton's consortium and have been "constantly in touch", Hamilton said, about the prospect of being part of a successful quest to acquire the Premier League club.

Hamilton, despite being an Arsenal fan, said businessman Broughton's ambitions for Chelsea were "incredibly exciting, and very much aligned with my values".

Chelsea head coach Tuchel said on Friday: "I just heard it, I just got a briefing and heard it.

"I can tell you no more than I'm a big admirer of both of them. They are fantastic personalities on the court and the racetrack.

"They are outstanding sports figures in what they do, for which they have my biggest respect, but I have absolutely no insight in the role they're playing."

Chelsea's long-time owner Roman Abramovich, who has been sanctioned by the United Kingdom government following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, announced his intentions to sell the Premier League club earlier in March.

Lewis Hamilton is excited to be a part of Martin Broughton's consortium looking to purchase Chelsea.

Hamilton, 37, has earned nearly $500million in his Formula 1 career, and is teaming up with a number of wealthy businessmen and women – including Serena Williams – as one of three remaining bids for the club.

Hamilton and Williams will reportedly be chipping in $10m each in the offer, after plenty of discussion between the two sporting legends, as well as personal phone calls from Broughton.

Speaking to the media ahead of this weekend's Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy, Hamilton was overjoyed at the prospect of being involved with football at the highest level, and said his allegiance to Arsenal is no hindrance.

"I’ve been a football fan since I was a kid," he said. "I played since I was a kid, from four to 17 in teams every year.

"I played every year through childhood and went to numerous games, when I was young. I used to play football as a kid around the corner and I really wanted to fit in. I was the only kid of colour there.

"All the kids supported someone different, and I switched between these teams, and when I’d get home my sister would hit me, saying you have to support Arsenal. At five, six years old I supported Arsenal, but my uncle Terry is a big Blues fan, so I’ve been to so many games to watch Chelsea and Arsenal play. 

"Ultimately, [I’m] a sporting fan and Chelsea are one of the biggest clubs in the world. When I heard about this I thought, ‘Wow – what a great opportunity to be a part of'."

Hamilton went on to discuss his role in Williams' decision, confirming the two had discussed it together.

"We did speak about it, we were constantly in touch," he said. "She asked me my thoughts, and I told her I’ll be a part of it, and she decided to join.

"We were contacted and Sir Martin spoke to me on the phone, explaining his and his team’s goals if they were to win the bid – which was incredibly exciting, and very much aligned with my values. 

"When I was younger I was trying to actually play for a team – I tried out for Stevenage – but I ended up following racing. I could have only ever dreamed of being a part of the team, so that’s for me the most exciting thing."

Carlos Sainz has penned a contract extension with Ferrari to take the Formula One driver through the end of the 2024 season.

The Spaniard, who originally joined the Italian outfit for the 2021 season and finished fifth in last year's world drivers' championship with a best finish of second at the Monaco Grand Prix.

Following a bright start to the new campaign, he has now been handed a renewed deal to take him through the next two years.

"I am very happy to have renewed my contract with Scuderia Ferrari," Sainz said upon confirmation of his extension on Thursday. "I have always said that there is no better Formula 1 team to race for.

"After over a year with them, I can confirm that putting on this race suit and representing this team is unique and incomparable. 

"My first season at Maranello was solid and constructive, with the whole group progressing together. The result of all that work has been clear to see so far season."

In his first season at the team, Sainz posted four podium finishes – double what he had achieved across the six seasons prior in F1.

Back-to-back finishes on the steps across the first two races of the new campaign, before a retirement in Australia, means he sits third in the drivers' standings so far this term.

He is still chasing a maiden win, however, and sits seventh on the all-time list for most races without a victory in the sport, with 144 under his belt.

"I feel strengthened by this renewed show of confidence in me and now I can’t wait to get in the car, to do my best for Ferrari and to give its fans plenty to cheer about," Sainz added.

"The F1-75 is proving to be a front-runner, which can allow me to chase my goals on track, starting with taking my first Formula 1 win."

Sainz will hope to make it three podium finishes in four races when he heads to Imola this weekend for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc will always receive huge support in Italy as long as he turns out in the red of Ferrari, but this week at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix might just be extra special.

Leclerc leads the Formula One drivers' championship after a stunning start to the new season, winning in Bahrain and Australia either side of a second-placed finish in Saudi Arabia.

The Monegasque is a massive 34 points clear of nearest challenger George Russell, but there are added points on offer this weekend with the return of the sprint race.

Leclerc should not be daunted, though, for this is a potentially record-breaking start to the year.

Having recorded the fastest lap at each of the first three grands prix, Leclerc could become the first ever driver to achieve four in a row from the start of an F1 season.

Kimi Raikkonen in 2008, then of Ferrari, was the last driver to set four fastest laps in four races at any stage of the year.

On this form, perhaps Leclerc will simply see the sprint race as something else he can conquer. Australia saw his first career Grand Slam, following up pole position with the fastest lap and a victory while leading from start to finish. Each of his four wins to date have come from pole.

Ferrari will be looking to move ahead of Williams for wins at Imola, with their joint-record eight so far contributing to a team-high 27 in Italy.

If Leclerc does not take the top step of the podium, the Scuderia will hope Carlos Sainz can get back on track, having retired in Melbourne following a team-record 24 consecutive finishes to start his Ferrari career.

Hamilton's time to shine?

At odds with Leclerc's joy, this has been a year to forget so far for perennial contender Lewis Hamilton, back in fifth with a single podium and no wins to his name.

But the sprint race is where he comes to life, having last year made up six places across the three Saturday events – level with Esteban Ocon for the most of any driver.

And even with Mercedes badly lacking the pace that put them on pole in the past two races at Imola, Hamilton has continued to show his class behind the wheel this year.

Only Yuki Tsunoda (six) has made up more places over the first laps of races this season than Hamilton's four.

Should he somehow manage to get a fastest lap out of his ailing Silver Arrow, Hamilton would become the first driver to have three in a row at Imola since Michael Schumacher between 2003 and 2005.

Frustration for Max

Defending champion Max Verstappen won at Imola in 2021 but could be forgiven for arriving in Italy in a downbeat mood having failed to finish two of three races so far this year, retiring in Australia.

With Sergio Perez also failing to finish once, Red Bull have had three such disappointing performances through three grands prix, having only had six cars fail to see the checkered flag in 22 races last season.

Should they finally get their act together, Red Bull could also make history with a fastest lap. They remain tied with Lotus on 76 for the most ever in F1.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 71
2. George Russell (Mercedes) 37
3. Carlo Sainz (Ferrari) 33
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 30
5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 28

Constructors

1. Ferrari 104
2. Mercedes 65
3. Red Bull 55
4. McLaren 24
5. Alpine 22

Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer believes the team's Renault power unit is within 10 brake horsepower of the best on the grid.

A strong start to the 2022 Formula One season has seen Alpine score points in each of the first three races.

Esteban Ocon has finished in the points in every race, though Fernando Alonso has failed to do so in each of the last two events, suffering misfortune in Saudi Arabia and Australia.

After struggling with engine performance last season, the team at Renault's Viry-Chatillon powertrain division concentrated on delivering a major upgrade for 2022.

Szafnauer has been impressed with the work they have done, the strength of this year's engine carrying extra significance because of a development freeze in place until the end of 2025.

"We think we've made a step on the power unit," Szafnauer said. "And we're within probably 10bhp of the best, and somewhere in the middle.

"I think Viry have done a brilliant job. And it's up to us now to keep developing the car.

"So that [the development freeze] allows us to work closer with our power unit team to make some improvements that we might be able to make with architecture changes on the chassis.

"Some other things that are still free to us. But also to now focus with what we have to improve on the chassis for the future."

Alonso was forced to retire in Saudi Arabia after a water pump failure led his engine to overheat, with Alpine unable to save that unit.

He was on a lap that may have put him in contention for pole in Melbourne, only for an oil pressure drop to force his engine to shut down in Q3.

The two-time world champion was last among the 17 drivers to finish the race, having seen several strategy calls backfire.

"It was O-ring on an oil seal," said Szafnauer of Alonso's qualifying failure. "The O-ring fretted, the oil leaked out.

"We have a fail-safe mode to try to save the engine, so when you see a drop in oil pressure, the fail-safe mode kicked in. And that's what happened. So the fix was an O-ring change."

F1 returns to action in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this weekend at Imola, where Ocon and Alonso finished ninth and 10th respectively last year.

Lewis Hamilton remains staunch in his stance against the FIA's jewellery ban, with the seven-time world champion insisting "you should be able to be who you are".

New race director Niels Wittich, who replaced Michael Masi at the start of the season, informed Formula One drivers that the ruling on accessories would be reinforced before the Australian Grand Prix.

Wittich suggested "body piercing or metal neck chains" were forbidden, with checks to be undertaken before races, but Hamilton still competed on Sunday with piercings in both ears and a nose stud.

The 37-year-old could, in theory, be penalised both financially and in terms of points for breaking the sporting code, with F1's race director insisting the rules were to prevent injury for the driver.

However, Hamilton – who finished fourth in Melbourne, one place behind Mercedes team-mate George Russell – does not intend on removing his jewellery.

"I don't have any plans on removing them," he said. "I feel they are personal things. You should be able to be who you are. There's stuff that I can't move.

"I literally can't take these out [gesturing to piercings on his right ear]. They're literally welded on so I'd have to get them chopped off or something. So they'll be staying.

"It's been the rule forever. Since I've been here it's been the rule, so there's nothing new. I'm just going to come with more jewellery next week."

The jewellery ban has been in place since 2004, but Wittich made a special effort to stress the rule was back into strong consideration in his pre-race notes in Melbourne.

While Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff praised the work of the new race director thus far, he questioned whether Wittich needed to pick a problem with what he sees as a minute issue.

"How he has run the first few races has been respectful, solid and he hasn't put a single foot wrong," Wolff said, as reported by PA Media.

"But is that [jewellery ban] a battle he needs to have at this stage? However, if it turns out to be the biggest unfortunate misstep of a race director, I would take it a thousand times over."

George Russell said the Formula One championship will be decided by results rather than pace after clinching his first podium finish for Mercedes at the Australian Grand Prix.

Russell finished third in Melbourne, with team-mate Lewis Hamilton coming home fourth as the team responded to a disappointing result in Saudi Arabia, where Russell and Hamilton came fifth and 10th respectively. 

Mercedes, who are bidding for a ninth consecutive constructors' championship, have struggled for pace early in the new campaign, but profited from Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz both failing to finish as they picked up valuable points at Albert Park. 

Having earned 65 points in the opening weeks of the season, second-placed Mercedes trail Ferrari by 39 points in the constructors' standings, and Russell highlighted the importance of being able to capitalise on others' mistakes in order to grab vital points.

The 24-year-old also, however, stressed the need for Mercedes to make improvements after team-mate Lewis Hamilton again spoke out regarding problems with the team's W13 car.

"It doesn't matter how fast the car is, if you don't make it to the end then you are not there to pick up the pieces," Russell said.

"We were probably the fifth-fastest team behind McLaren and Alpine yet here we are in third place.

"It is a championship based on results not pace.

"But we know if we want to keep that position, we need to find more performance in the car."

Lewis Hamilton said Mercedes must "leave no stone unturned" in their quest for improvements after he battled to a fourth-place finish at the Australian Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion has endured a frustrating start to the 2022 campaign, sitting fifth in the drivers' championship standings and repeatedly speaking out on problems with the team's W13 car.

Hamilton batlled to fourth in the third Grand Prix of the season after starting fifth on the grid, with team-mate George Russell claiming his first podium finish for Mercedes in third as Ferrari's Charles Leclerc stormed to victory.

After describing Mercedes' car as "spiteful" in the aftermath of qualifying in Melbourne, Hamilton stressed the need for the team to make improvements in "every single area" if they are to compete with early-season pace-setters Ferrari.

"I will be on Zoom calls with our bosses, really trying to rally them up," he said.

"We have got some improvements that we need to make, and we need everyone's support in doing so.

"It is about making sure we leave no stone unturned, that the hunger is there, and we are maximising every moment.

"I will be chasing the people in the wind tunnel, the aerodynamic guys, and just looking at every single area.

"There is performance to be gained and we need it now, not in two or three races. I have got to keep that encouragement and energy high."

Mercedes are bidding for a ninth consecutive constructors' championship, but trail Ferrari by 39 points in the 2022 standings after three races.

While calling for improvements across the board and noting that the gap to Ferrari is "pretty big", Hamilton stressed the need for the team to remain upbeat and highlighted that there are many races to come.

"I prefer to stay optimistic," he added. "There are 20 races to go. 

"I am really hoping we can get in the fight, but with every bit of improvement we make so will Red Bull and Ferrari. 

"It is not going to be easy. The gap is pretty big right now, but there is a long way to go."

Russell, meanwhile, is second in the drivers' standings after following up his fourth and fifth-place finishes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia with an impressive showing at Albert Park, and Hamilton was keen to praise the 24-year-old for his performances since making the switch from Williams.

"It is incredible," Hamilton said of the start Russell has made to his Mercedes career.

"He has been so solid. He is really grafting away and is doing an amazing job."

The next date in the Formula One calendar will see Hamilton bid for a repeat of his 2020 triumph at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, after he finished second to Max Verstappen at Imola last year.

Max Verstappen says Red Bull are "already miles behind" after the reigning world champion suffered a second DNF of the 2022 Formula One season at the Australian Grand Prix.

The Dutchman had sat second throughout the race at Albert Park and had closed the gap on eventual race winner and championship rival Charles Leclerc amid a safety car deployment.

But a mechanical failure saw him forced to retire once again after he also failed to see out the season opener in Bahrain, with the Ferrari of Leclerc leading home from Verstappen's Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez and Mercedes' George Russell.

It is the second time in three races Verstappen has been blighted by problems beyond his control, and he bemoaned that he cannot think about defending his crown right now.

"We're already miles behind," he stated. "I don't want to think about the title fight, I just want to finish races.

"It's frustrating and unacceptable. These kinds of things if you want to fight for the title cannot happen."

Team principal Christian Horner voiced his own disappointment to Sky Sports afterwards too, adding: "We don't know what the issue is yet. I don't think it is engine related.

"I think it might be a fuel issue but we need to get the car back and look at exactly what has happened.

"[It's] desperately frustrating. We didn't have the pace to race Charles today. They were in a league of their own but frustrating not to bag those points."

One beneficiary of Verstappen's exit was Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, with the seven-time world champion completing a second-row lockout for the Silver Arrows after his struggles this year.

"We definitely didn't expect to be third and fourth," the Briton added to Sky Sports. "George did a great job today. We'll take these points and keep pushing.

"I couldn't fight for third as the engine kept overheating. I had to back off. We bagged as many points as we could for the team and that's great."

Charles Leclerc saluted his team's work across the Australian Grand Prix, as the Ferrari driver claimed his second win of the 2022 Formula One season in Melbourne.

The Monegasque led from pole throughout to claim victory in the third race of the year, driving a masterfully composed race out in front at Albert Park.

With presumptive title rival Max Verstappen forced into a DNF behind him with another mechanical failure, Leclerc has now opened up a 46-point gap on the reigning world champion.

Even before then, Leclerc had looked comfortable in the lead, and he was quick to pay tribute to his crew back in the Ferrari garage for helping him take his game up a level.

"It's the first win where we have controlled the gap," he stated. "Honestly, what a car today. Of course, I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car.

"Especially in the race pace, we were extremely strong. [The] tyres felt great - from the first lap to the last lap, we were managing the tyres extremely well. I am just so happy."

Leclerc was forced to navigate both physical and virtual safety car restarts throughout, and almost lost his place to Verstappen when the former came in midway through the race.

"It was very difficult, especially the safety car restart," he added. "I thought it was going to be difficult to keep the first position, but then we managed to do so.

"We are only in the third race, so it is difficult to think about the championship, but we have a very strong car, a very reliable car.

"That makes me smile after the last two years, which have been difficult for the team and myself, so it is great to be back in this position."

Red Bull's Sergio Perez came home second to capitalise on team-mate Verstappen's latest car woes, and the Mexican was muted on the missed chance to lock out the rest of the podium.

"That race was a bit tricky," he added. "We were a bit unlucky losing positions with the safety cars which we recovered later. It would've been great to have a double podium, but we lost Max."

Mercedes' George Russell was the biggest beneficiary of both the safety car and Verstappen's withdrawal, with the Briton edging team-mate Lewis Hamilton for his first podium of the year.

"We have got to be in it to win it and capitalise on others' misfortune," he added. "Obviously we got lucky today twice, but you have got to take it.

"We are never to give up. We have got to keep fighting. This weekend we were a long way behind our rivals but here we are standing on the podium."

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