- Just as everyone was gearing up for chapter two of the Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton epic, a new rivalry has been reignited, one that dates back much further.
The opening two races of the 2022 season have seen Verstappen duel with Charles Leclerc, and, perhaps uncharacteristically, be over generous with space.
Leclerc came out the victor in the season opener in Bahrain as he staged multiple fights with the reigning world champion through the first four corners of the Sakhir circuit, out-thinking the Dutchman to claim maximum points.
Leclerc allowed Verstappen to pass into turn one so he had the benefit of the drag reduction system [DRS] out of three, fighting back and holding off his rival with great success.
In Saudi though, Verstappen knew what was coming, and read Leclerc’s DRS dummies to take home his first win of the season after an enthralling late battle.
A classy Leclerc congratulated Verstappen post-race, saying “Well done to Max,” over team radio, before the visibly knackered pair enthused over the quality of their fight in the media pen.
“It was a good race, we were battling hard at the front,” said Verstappen, before complimenting Leclerc’s ‘smart tricks’ into the DRS zone.
Leclerc was even more thrilledsaying: “Oh my god I really enjoyed that race, again it’s hard racing but fair and every race should be like this.
Leclerc and Verstappen talked up their respect post-race, but that hasn’t always been the case
“It’s always been there [the respect], especially when you finish a race like this, we are in a street track, we’ve been pushing like I’ve rarely pushed before, to the absolute limit, and we take risks at the end so of course there’s respect.”
However, the suggestion that respect has always been there between the pair of 24-year-olds isn’t exactly true, with archive footage of a 2012 go-karting race evidence to the contrary.
Two spritely young world-class karters had just been disqualified from a race after coming into contact in the closing stages ‘even after the finish line’.
A livid Verstappen was seen stomping away from the scene with father Jos in tow and said: “No he’s just unfair.
A young Verstappen was fuming with Leclerc
Who then dismissed their crash as ‘just an incident’
“I’m leading, he wants to pass, he pushed me, I push him back and after he pushed me off the track, it’s not fair huh?”
The World Super Kart Euro Series host then quickly managed to get an interview with the other 14-year-old who was involved in the disqualification, who unsurprisingly had a different take.
When asked ‘what happened with Max?’ Leclerc replied by saying: “Nothing, it’s just an incident on the race.”
The duo’s careers diverged after they left karts and moved into open wheel racing in 2014, with Verstappen’s early junior days incredibly brief before he was handed his debut as F1’s youngest ever driver in 2015, aged just 17.
Verstappen has broken record after record as F1’s youngest driver
But Leclerc had to play the long game
Leclerc, meanwhile, dominated F1’s feeder series GP3 and Formula 2, winning both championships before stepping up to the big time in 2018.
By then Verstappen had already graduated from Toro Rosso to Red Bull and was a race winner, but it only took one year with Alfa Romeo before Leclerc was given the same platform with Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton’s dominant Mercedes won the 2019 title with ease, but it was just below in the standings where things got interesting, with Verstappen and Leclerc reigniting their rivalry in far less cordial scenes than we’ve seen in 2022.
The Austrian Grand Prix was where things got heated, with the two duelling for victory in the final stages, Verstappen made sure to force Leclerc off the track at turn two in order to maintain the lead and claim victory.
Leclerc had to admit defeat as the stewards decided not to act, but by the next race in Silverstone, he had a new mentality.
“There have been some other incidents in the past, which have been smaller in a way and that have been penalised,” he explained ahead of the British Grand Prix.
“If we can race that way, then I’m more than happy to race that way.
“I think it’s good for Formula 1, I think this is what us drivers want, but we just need to know what we can expect from the others.”
The 2021 Silverstone race will go down in history for a Hamilton and Verstappen collision which sent the latter into the wall at 51G, but in 2019 he similarly met his match with Leclerc.
The Monegasque followed up his words, battling fiercely with Verstappen from lap 11 all the way through to lap 36, sending his Dutch rival off the track on multiple occasions, giving Verstappen little to complain about after Austria.
Their battle was a highlight of the season, but ultimately meaningless as Hamilton eased towards the title, but this year things have moved up to a whole new level.
Ferrari are finally back after two years in the wilderness, and with a struggling Mercedes currently well off the pace, there are many more chapters of the Verstappen vs Leclerc rivalry ready to be written.
Leclerc talked about respect in Saudi, and there undoubtedly was plenty as the pair gave each other room to fight, but his suggestion that it ‘always’ will be there will surely be put to the test as these new titans of the sport look set to clash repeatedly – and we can’t wait.