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.
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.