Can Leclerc and Verstappen remain friendly foes in F1's new battle for the ages?


The Leclerc vs Verstappen rivalry is friendly for now, but can these two polar-opposite F1 personalities keep things cordial?

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing and Second placed Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari shake hands in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

A mutual respect is clear between Leclerc and Verstappen, but we're only two races into the season

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Two races in and it appears Formula 1 has another peach of a duel to relish between two equally matched drivers racing for two equally matched teams – the dream scenario. But it falls short of perfection. That might come later, if Mercedes can claw back its current deficit to Ferrari and Red Bull and make it a three-way contest, in a season that will likely centre around the teams’ rate of learning about this new ground-effect F1 generation in the wider context of a tightening budget cap.

A string of tantalising questions have been prompted by the Middle Eastern double-header in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Will this year be all about Max Verstappen versus Charles Leclerc, the duo who have shared centre stage with two gripping battles so far? What about Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz Jr in the other blue and red cars? In Jeddah ‘Checo’ stunned everyone, not least himself, with that first pole position for his 215th start, did all that was required from the lights and was desperately unlucky on the timing of Nicholas Latifi’s ham-fisted lone accident that cost him his lead. The double whammy of narrowly losing third to Sainz as he exited the pits from his stop – even though he initially seemed to have emerged ahead – added insult. Would he have won? Impossible to say for certain, of course, but he appeared to have this race in his hands. A big performance.

LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari SF90, VERSTAPPEN Max (ned), Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda RB15, portrait during the 2019 Formula One World Championship, Grand Prix of Austria from June 27 to 31, in Spielberg, Austria - Photo Florent Gooden / DPPI

Verstappen and Leclerc’s early exchanges in 2019 showed no quarter will be given

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Sainz is currently in a tougher spot. Yes, he outscored Leclerc last term, but that’s irrelevant. Now Ferrari has provided the pair with a pace-setting car in the F1-75 – and only one of them is using it as well as he should be. Sainz is an intelligent man, knows the score and is all too clearly feeling the pain of his shortfall right now. It’s not about racing to keep his drive – his Ferrari future beyond this year appears close to safe – but rather it’s a nagging perception that he needs to bat away. The Spaniard is not a number two in any official sense, but in Australia outqualifying and then outracing Leclerc will be an imperative to avoid the dreaded typecast role he’s flirting with.

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However, as it stands, it’s Verstappen vs Leclerc that remains in sharpest focus. The contrast to the world champion’s duel with Lewis Hamilton last year is already adding a different flavour to this contest. Whether it matches the searing intensity of 2021 remains to be seen, but instead of a 13-year age gap between the combatants both Verstappen and Leclerc are 24 years old – and yet boast remarkable experience for their age. OK, Max has 143 starts, a world title in the bag and has already surpassed Mika Häkkinen’s 20 GP wins and now matches Kimi Räikkönen on 21, compared to Charles’ 82 starts and three wins – but they occupy the same space in more ways than one, and have done since their days racing each other in karts. These duellists know and understand each other in a way Verstappen never could with a man of Hamilton’s age. They seem to enjoy racing against each other too.

Whether that means Verstappen has changed his approach to racing, has somehow dialled down the aggression, is another point entirely. That seems highly unlikely. This fierce, bolshy competitor isn’t one for compromise. It’s been relatively tame compared to what became so borderline with Hamilton last year, but these are very early days. Give it time.

What marked the early parries in Bahrain and Saudi for me was Leclerc’s cool composure when Verstappen was hunting him down. Should we be surprised by his poise? Not at all. But still, it’s telling just how naturally Leclerc has picked up from where he left off from the last time he had a truly competitive car underneath him. Rare opportunities such as his wasted Monaco pole last year aside, he’s been killing time since Ferrari was knocked back by that weird behind-closed-doors rap from the FIA over what we think was something trick fuel-flow system in 2019. Now the team is back, and bang – Leclerc looks entirely at home at the sharp end. He’s just reminded us that it’s absolutely where he belongs. He has the air of a driver who knows he can challenge for a championship.

Charles Leclerc Max Verstappen 2022 Saudi Arabian GP

An intense duel in Jeddah look to be reprised across many races in 2022

Grand Prix Photo

They’re very different characters, aren’t they? Out of the car both are relaxed, self-contained, unruffled. In the car, Leclerc rarely loses his cool, but Verstappen rages and curses on the radio at injustice – accusing Leclerc in Jeddah of crossing the pit entry line and speeding under yellow flags, all for the benefit of the race director – or railing at his team for whatever performance or strategy shortfall he’s experiencing. It’s a tiresome trait, but Verstappen won’t apologise for that – hell, he won’t apologise for anything unless he really has to – because he has instilled in him that old, familiar sense of entitlement exhibited by some (but by no means all) great racing drivers. There are shades of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher in his make-up. Arrogant? Yes. But it’s also how that granite-like self-belief, rooted in his father’s tough-love upbringing through the karting years, manifests itself. It will probably drive him to multiple world titles.

Leclerc has a different style, as was shown in his magnanimous response to defeat on Sunday night. He was hurting, make no mistake – but gave due credit to his rival. Still, never translate that to mean he’s a pushover. Leclerc’s immediate response to being outmuscled to defeat in Austria in 2019 by giving as good as he got to Verstappen next time out at Silverstone scotched that one. Leclerc is ready for the fight that lies ahead.

How Ferrari fares against razor-sharp, fully match-fit Red Bull is another matter. On performance, as Adrian Newey said on Sunday night, there’s little in it between the cars right now – but there’s always more to this game than outright pace. This battle currently lacks the bitter zest of that with Mercedes, which was stoked last year by Red Bull’s new powertrain division snatching a significant number of employees from Merc’s Brixworth-based High Performance Powertrains. At this stage, the team rivalry hasn’t become personal. Again, give it time.

2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Sunday Lewis Hamilton

Can Mercedes make it a three-way battle?


As for Hamilton, is he out of it already? It would be daft to say so, even if the team faces a daunting climb to get on terms with the pace-setting duo. I refer back to what HPP’s managing director Hywel Thomas said to me in a pre-season interview: “There is a good chance that a team that starts really strongly won’t necessarily end very strongly. My gut feeling is that during the year people might make different strides at different times.”

Thomas will be hoping that turns out to be prescient. It’s not too late, just two races in, for us to wish for perfection from what is already a peach of an F1 season.