Controversies Off the Track Follow Formula 1 to Australia for the Season’s Third Grand Prix

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — 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, who is director of the all-female series F1 Academy and also 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 ongoing furor surrounding Red Bull Racing and its team principal Christian Horner.

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.

“All the items that have come to light are very serious . . . we are living in 2024 and not 1984, which means total transparency,” McLaren chief executive Zak Brown told a news conference Friday. “The three situations are all different and we need to make sure things are done in a truly independent manner. We are three races into the schedule and we are still talking about it.”

Of Wolff’s legal action, Brown added: “I think Susie is one of the most respected people in motorsport.”

Red Bull’s all-conquering RB20 car, which has secured perfect 1-2 results at the season-opening events in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has been a secondary talking point at Albert Park to speculation about whether Max Verstappen was preparing to leave for Mercedes.

“I’m happy within the team,” the three-time F1 world champion said ahead of the practice sessions, rejecting speculation of a switch.

Verstappen is the favorite Sunday to take his third straight win in 2024 and his record-equaling 10th straight dating to last year’s Japanese Grand Prix.

He was second-fastest in two practice sessions Friday behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Verstappen lost about 20 minutes of the second session while repairs were made to the floor and chassis of his car following damage in the first session

“Today was a little bit messy. We had some damage which took a bit longer to fix meaning I had a bit of catch up to do,” Verstappen said.

“I think Ferrari is quick, but, from our side, I think there are also a few more things that we can fine-tune, so nothing crazy worrying about.”

Lewis Hamilton, a regular on the front row of the grid in Melbourne, was 18th fastest of 19 cars in the second practice session, which didn’t surprise Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.

“I think in the second session we’ve gone through a really quite a dramatic setup change on Lewis, and that has massively backfired,” Wolff said. “But this is why we’re having those sessions.”

Ten minutes were lost during the first one-hour practice session after Alex Albon lost control and slammed into a wall, escaping without injury but seriously damaging his Williams. The team then decided to give him teammate Logan Sargeant’s car, meaning F1’s only American driver will have to sit out Sunday’s race.

Ferrari remains the closest rival to the Red Bulls, with Leclerc 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.”

Ferrari’s performance here could have been compromised after Carlos Sainz declared he was ready to return to the cockpit, but not feeling 100% after surgery for appendicitis ahead of the last race in Saudi Arabia.

But the Spanish driver, who is out of contract at the end of the season, had the eighth-fastest time in the opening practice and improved to third after the second session.

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,” said Piastri. “But yeah, it would be very, very special.”

Brown had some high praise for his Aussie driver.

“He continues to get faster and faster,” the McLaren CEO said. “ What we are seeing is that he’s got his rookie stripes off now. He doesn’t really make mistakes.”

Qualifying is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. The 58-lap race Sunday should be held in clear weather, with a favorable forecast for the weekend.

By STEWART BELL Associated Press



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