It’s March 2022 in Bahrain. The floodlights are on full blast as a mechanical tango between two of Formula 1’s brightest young stars takes place.
In the Red Bull, Max Verstappen, the defending champion and the hunter in a battle with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, the hunted.
The pair trade positions lap after lap, fighting for every inch of the track and pulling further away from their teammates Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez.
Leclerc won the battle in Bahrain, but Verstappen won the war, with the pair having two very different campaigns when the F1 circus rolled back into Europe.
However, both drivers are now back on zero heading into 2023, giving fans another chance to see this emerging rivalry go head-to-head once again. So what will be different this year?
Red Bull may suffer cost cap hangover
Although it was smooth sailing for Red Bull, the autumn of 2022 saw a siege mentality engulf the team.
The team was investigated for allegedly breaching the cost cap in 2021, with the affair dragging on for over a month.
When Red Bull were finally punished, they were hit by a $7m fine and a further 10 percent reduction in wind tunnel time, putting the team on the back foot going into 2023.
With 20 percent of wind tunnel time gone, the RB19 may struggle to match the feats of its predecessors, giving Ferrari and Leclerc hope Verstappen won’t be as dominant.
Leclerc holds the aces in qualifying
In a season where Ferrari’s race pace turned to mush, Leclerc was undoubtedly the qualifying master taking nine pole positions in 2022 compared to Verstappen’s eight.
Even in 2020 and 2021, when Ferrari had an average car, Leclerc still managed to qualify inside the top three frequently, and if the SF-23 is as good as it looks, the poles may keep coming.
However, Verstappen isn’t a bad qualifier either, and with cars getting broader and heavier, qualifying will play an even bigger factor in deciding the outcome of the championship.
One example of Verstappen’s excellent one-lap pace came at Spa-Francorchamps, where he dominated the session and set a pole lap over half a second quicker than Sainz.
Mindgames on and off track will play a hand
The sequel to Bahrain, Jeddah was even more intense, with the pair using trickery to outfox one another and try to secure the all-important DRS for the start-finish straight.
A memorable moment came at the last corner when Leclerc and Verstappen outbraked each other in unison, bringing each other to a stop before resuming battle.
In the battle of minds, Verstappen handles the pressure much better, remaining ice cool when under attack from opponents, even if things aren’t going his way.
Leclerc, on the other hand, tends to crack under pressure, particularly in France last year, but despite the odd lapses in concentration, he has become mentally stronger over time.
Inter team tactics may come into the equation
Six months on from Bahrain and with the championship wrapped up, Verstappen caused controversy after refusing to let Perez past, costing his teammate second in the championship.
That incident irked Perez, who felt aggrieved by Verstappen’s snub, and although rumours of a feud between the pair have simmered down, tension could rise again if both fighting for the championship.
Although there have been heated discussions in the past regarding team orders at Ferrari, Sainz and Leclerc, haven’t refused to let one another by and will no doubt work together to help the team win both titles.
However, to play the team game, Sainz has to be more consistent and avoid making silly mistakes that have previously opened the door for Verstappen to capitalise.