There have as yet been no incidents after two flat-out contests between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc in the opening two races, this in contrast to Verstappen’s sometimes physical wheel-to-wheel battles with Lewis Hamilton last year.
There was a moment in their Bahrain dice where Leclerc had got DRS on the Red Bull up to Turn 4 and went around the outside to retake the lead. Leclerc turned across Verstappen’s bows into the corner and had this been last year and had the other car been Hamilton, we might have expected Max to refuse to yield and contact to be made.
But not this time; he gave Leclerc the space and the position. What gives? Has Verstappen adopted a different style?
Probably not. What’s different are the circumstances.
Verstappen vs Hamilton: Laying down a marker
Last year Verstappen was in a career-defining fight for the world championship for the first time after six seasons in cars which were not of a title-contending calibre. He was doing so against the combined colossi of Mercedes and Hamilton, the gold standard for so many years.
There definitely seemed to be an element of Verstappen laying down his marker to Hamilton, to establish a psychological upper hand that in any 50/50 situations he would always prevail, that he was even prepared to crash rather than yield.
It seemed part of a battle plan for the season once it was obvious that the Red Bull was a good enough tool to give Verstappen serious championship aspirations.
Although Verstappen had been in F1 for six years and there had been occasions where he and Hamilton had crossed swords, it was never for anything of real consequence. Hamilton had admitted that he wasn’t quite sure how to handle Max’s aggression close-up and had figured the best way was just to give him space.
But that was when Hamilton had titles to secure and the only way of losing them would have been to non-finish regularly. He could afford to lose out in the odd fight for track space. But when engaged head-to-head in a title contest, the dynamics obviously changed – and at some point Hamilton responded. Last year was the first year Hamilton and Verstappen properly felt each other out on equal terms.
Verstappen vs Leclerc: Explaining the 2022 respect
But Verstappen and Leclerc have been going wheel-to-wheel right back to their karting days as kids. They are more than familiar with each other on track and have even come to form something of a bond. They’ve raced each for a very long time, can read each other very well.
Many recall their controversial coming together for the victory late on in Austria in 2019 where Verstappen hung Leclerc out over the exit kerb.
After the stewards ruled in Verstappen’s favour on that one Leclerc said he now looked forward to racing Max according to the etiquette established in Austria and was as good as his word at the next race, at Silverstone. There they staged an epic duel, with wheels rubbing at times, before Verstappen was delayed through being hit by Sebastian Vettel.
So Verstappen and Leclerc are quite capable of getting physical but there is no need for any points to be proven; they know each other of old.
For all that he has a reputation for zero compromise, Verstappen actually races according to the situation. Last year, when he ran Hamilton off at Brazil Turn 4 after the latter was already ahead, it was done in the context of the Mercedes being, at that point in the season, much the faster car. It looked feasible that Hamilton would win all the remaining races after the big step made between Mexico – and Brazil and Verstappen was running out of ways of preventing that.
There was a desperation to that move, born of the prospect of losing the world title he’d been waiting so long to achieve, that it was all slipping away from him.
That’s not the case now. That desperation is not there, something he touched upon in Jeddah, saying, “Last year… when, as a little kid, you always dream of, of course, trying to be a Formula 1 driver, and hopefully one day you win a championship, but that that’s achieved.
“That kind of pressure of wanting and needing to do that is gone. But you still want to win races and stuff.”
Don’t write off the possibility that there will be further Leclerc/Verstappen clashes. But this dynamic is very different from that of Hamilton and Verstappen last year.