MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Beaten by a rival other than Red Bull for the first time this season at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso believes Formula One is about to become far more competitive.
The veteran finished on the podium for the third time in as many races when taking third behind Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne.
The 41-year-old Spaniard had previously finished third behind Red Bull’s Verstappen and Sergio Perez as that pair exchanged victories in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, respectively, in March.
While Hamilton said the podium finish was an unexpected bonus given Mercedes’ struggles in the first two races, Alonso was less surprised by the improvement.
The Aston Martin driver cited his battle with Hamilton's teammate George Russell in Jeddah as an indication that Mercedes would be competitive in Melbourne and coming races this year.
After qualifying second in Melbourne, Russell briefly led the Australian GP before misfortune struck, with his race ending due to an engine fire on Lap 19.
Alonso pressed Hamilton throughout on the Albert Park circuit but could not muster enough pace to pass his fellow former world champion.
He added that rival teams will likely improve the performances of their cars in the break between the Australian Grand Prix and the next race in Azerbaijan at the end of April.
“I think, now, we are entering a part of the season that is going to be very interesting (as to) which team is developing the car (faster),” he said.
“From now on, maybe, we will see the level of the teams changing a little bit race by race, you know, depending (on) who brings an upgrade that is good enough.”
His teammate Lance Stroll was promoted to fourth on Sunday after Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was issued with a penalty for colliding with Alonso in a chaotic conclusion to the race.
Red Bull holds a dominant 53-point lead in the manufacturers’ championship, but Aston Martin sits second on 65 points, nine ahead of Mercedes.
“For us, it’s all happy days at the moment,” Alonso said. “We never expected... the podium, maybe even throughout the season. Now we have three.
"Everything that comes now is a plus. So, we take every opportunity and we need to learn and we need to grow as a team, also maybe now off track, because we are racing against Red Bull and Mercedes and Ferrari, teams that are used to this kind of pace and development.”
Elsewhere in paddock, Haas lodged a protest against the provisional classification of the Australian Grand Prix, claiming Nico Hulkenberg was disadvantaged by a stewards' ruling.
A late red flag was deployed when Kevin Magnussen crashed into barriers on Lap 55, with his right-rear wheel ripped off his Haas.
A standing restart saw Sainz tap Alonso into a spin, both Alpine cars crash out and Williams’ Logan Sargeant drive into Alpha Tauri’s Nyck de Vries.
When the race restarted under caution on the final lap, the order of classification reverted to before the previous restart three laps earlier.
This dropped Hulkenberg from fourth to seventh position.
In another development on a chaotic day in Melbourne, stewards have summoned Australian GP officials to a hearing after spectators prematurely entered the track after the race.