F1’s racing revolution breathes new life into Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc’s rivalry

Regulation changes have played into the hands of Red Bull and a resurgent Ferrari, with Verstappen and Leclerc continuing a rivalry that has excited since they were teenagers

Dan Austin
Monday 28 March 2022 13:51 BST
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Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc speak after the Saudi GP
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc speak after the Saudi GP (Getty)

It is not often that a professional athlete revels in the fun of being narrowly beaten in the final stages of a rip-roaring sporting contest by a long-time adversary, but that is exactly what Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc did after finishing less than a second behind Max Verstappen in Formula One’s stellar Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday evening.

“It wasn’t enough today but oh my God I really enjoyed that race... Every race should be like this!”, beamed the Monegasque in his post-race interview, the sweat tumbling down his cheeks in the thick Gulf heat after just under two hours spent touring one of the most physically punishing and downright dangerous tracks in world motor sport at speeds which quite literally verge on breakneck.

That he had finished only second having spent the vast majority of the race in first place was not Leclerc’s primary concern once the chequered flag had waved; instead, the sheer thrill of tussling so closely out front with Verstappen was enough to render the Ferrari driver positively giddy about the season to come.

Last season, while Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton engaged in a title fight that ranks among the most intense Formula One has produced in its seven-decade history, Leclerc was squabbling with midfield runners to score solid but unspectacular points totals in Ferrari machinery that was fundamentally incapable of allowing him to compete for wins.

But the 2022 campaign has heralded a regulation change that has revolutionised the way F1 races are run, and which has played entirely into Leclerc’s hands.

All 10 teams have been forced to completely redesign their cars in an effort to counteract a problem that blighted the previous era of racing — loss of downforce. Previously, F1 cars lost a significant proportion of their aerodynamic potency when closely following the car in front, rendering following at speed immensely difficult and overtaking infrequent. The rules were changed so that the new cars would, theoretically, be able to follow one another more closely, meaning drivers could race harder.

Two races in, F1 seems to have absolutely nailed its revamped rulebook. In the opening rounds at Sakhir and Jeddah, Leclerc and Verstappen have spent successive laps trading the lead back and forth, scrapping around every corner in a battle of wits which has seen both men using trickery and flamboyancy to try and dupe their opponent into an error. Neither has been able to run away with the lead because the ease with which they can follow one another means there is never more than a few cars’ lengths between them.

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are joined by third-placed Carlos Sainz on the podium in Jeddah (Getty Images)

What would once have been a cut-and-dry one-move overtaking situation is now a breathless, rhythmic dance through the corners in which nothing can be taken for granted and the audience can barely choose a moment to take a breath. While the cars themselves are an enormous part of the improvement, the dovetailing of Leclerc’s patient driving style and laidback temperament make him the ideal conduit for the new form of racing.

At Jeddah on Sunday, once Sergio Perez had dropped back to fourth place owing to some desperately unfortunate pit stop timing behind the safety car, Leclerc and Verstappen led the pack at the restart. The world champion, as he did behind Hamilton ahead of the final lap at the Abu Dhabi season finale in December, tried to to toy with Leclerc, pulling up alongside the Ferrari in the final sector, moving on and off the accelerator in an effort to unsettle him.

The sight of a confident, aggressive, and quick world champion a metre or two away would be enough to stun plenty of top-level drivers into submission. Leclerc, though, handled the restart perfectly, shuffling Verstappen out onto the rubber marble-laden, dirty portion of the circuit and stamping on the accelerator at the right moment to launch himself with perfect traction to maintain the lead.

Later, after a virtual safety car period following bizarrely quick consecutive retirements for Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, Verstappen was hanging onto Leclerc’s gearbox again with just a few laps to go. Leclerc allowed Verstappen to take the lead into the final corner, before using the advantage of DRS on the pit stop to regain it immediately, in a carbon copy of the tactic he employed to maintain the lead in Bahrain the previous weekend.

Just four months ago this was the track where the Verstappen and Hamilton battle descended into unadulterated chaos, the pair flying off track at Turn 1 innumerable times as they pushed the limits of the rules in order to best one another, before making incomprehensible contact at slow speed during a dispute over rightful track position in the eyes of the stewards.

The contrast here could not have been more stark. Leclerc and Verstappen came up through the junior ranks in the same generation and for over a decade have battled each other for race wins in go karts, entry level single-seaters, and now the fastest racing machinery on the planet. That shared history has allowed them to build up an innate understanding of one another’s tactics, habits, personality and limits on a circuit. So far at least, they know exactly when and where to push each other, and when to draw back.

Eventually, Verstappen simply had too much straight-line speed in his Red Bull for Leclerc to withstand the pressure, and a late set of waved yellow flags after Alex Albon swept his Williams into the sidepod of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin meant that he was given a reprieve just as it seemed Leclerc could mount yet another comeback.

Leclerc’s pristine tactical handling of Verstappen so far demonstrates the core intelligence of his driving, which makes him such a fascinating championship contender. The racing between the two has been sensational, relentless stuff at times, but always within the lines of fairness and respect. With one victory each, and Hamilton languishing in a Mercedes car which is far off the pace of the frontrunners, the pair seem destined to be the protagonists of Formula One in 2022.

The car development war between their respective teams will govern who drives the faster car as the season progresses, and will play a significant part in determining the winner of the championship. But for now, Leclerc has exactly the right idea — every race should be like this, and for as long as the racing revolution continues, there is good reason for everyone involved to be smiling.

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