Formula 1 had the fortune of seeing two generational talents go head to head in one of the most thrilling seasons in the sport’s history in 2021, and now another classic battle is brewing up nicely, with defending world champion Max Verstappen on one side of the ring once again.
It’s not Lewis Hamilton who will be Verstappen‘s main rival this year, it’s Charles Leclerc from Ferrari and so far the opening two events have seen the pair lock horns in an exciting, fair fight.
Verstappen and Leclerc’s 2012 karting incident
This rivalry dates back to the 2012 WSK Euro Series, when Verstappen and Leclerc came together, quite literally, in Italy. Both drivers were disqualified for the collision and Verstappen was visibly annoyed.
“It’s just unfair,” said Verstappen. “I’m leading, and he wants to pass, and he pushes me. I push him back, and after he pushes me off the track. It’s not fair.”
Leclerc responded by saying it was “nothing, just an incident on the race”. The video has gone viral since both drivers made their mark on F1.
Climbing the F1 ladder
Whilst Leclerc took the traditional route to F1 by winning the GP3 and Formula 2 championships in his rookie campaign, Verstappen went straight from karting into the European Formula 3 series and into F1.
The Dutchman was long seen as the future as soon as he made his debut in F1 in 2015, whilst Leclerc joined the sport in 2018 for Alfa Romeo. It didn’t take long for the pair to be battling for the same piece of tarmac.
At the 2019 Austrian GP, Leclerc was on course for his maiden win in F1, but Verstappen had other ideas. The Red Bull driver had an awful start to his race, dropping to eighth place on the opening lap.
Verstappen was on a charge though and came storming through the field with just Leclerc separating him and an incredible victory. With four laps to go, Verstappen went for it, but Leclerc held him off by placing his car in the right position on the outside of Turn 3 at the Red Bull Ring.
A lap later, Verstappen went for it again. This time, he barged his way through in an incident which sparked fury from Leclerc. The contact was investigated, with no penalty given. A classic Grand Prix, and a key moment in this pulsating rivalry.
Verstappen versus Leclerc at Silverstone 2019
Just one week later, Verstappen and Leclerc were trading blows again, with the events of Austria still firmly in both drivers’ minds.
F1 fans to love reminisce about Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux‘s iconic fight on the last lap of the 1979 French GP in Dijon, and they will be looking back at the battle between Verstappen and Leclerc at the 2019 British GP in Silverstone in a similar manner in years to come.
They had an almighty duel, lap after lap at high speeds to the delight of the Silverstone fans. It was hard, fair and on the limit with a few hold your breath moments which kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Leclerc said it was the most fun he had in F1 at the time.
“With Max in both Austria and Silverstone, we put on a great show,” added Leclerc. “It’s fun to be able to race like this and I hope that there will be more of it in the future, maybe even for the win and for world titles.”
Leclerc‘s hopes have come true three years later.
Building towards F1 2022
Ferrari’s difficult 2020 stopped Verstappen and Leclerc from fighting one another, apart from at the 2020 Sakhir GP when the latter braked late and hit Sergio Perez, forcing Verstappen to take avoiding action by finding the gravel trap.
Whilst Verstappen showed his exceptional speed and consistency on his way to becoming the 2021 F1 champion, Leclerc was improving his race management and tyre conservation, an initial weakness during his first two years in the sport.
Like Leclerc, Ferrari were also building towards 2022 and the new regulations. Pre-season testing suggested Mattia Binotto‘s team had designed a car that would send Ferrari back to the front, and in the hands of Leclerc, the Scuderia returned to winning ways.
A rivalry well and truly reborn
The 2022 Bahrain GP set the tone for what’s to come in F1 this year as Leclerc smartly fended off three attacks from Verstappen to claim his first win since Monza 2019.
Seven days later, Leclerc showed his smart racecraft once again by playing games with Verstappen at the final DRS detection point at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Saudi Arabia.
Eventually, Verstappen worked out how to get by the Monegasque driver after an intense final 10 laps. Despite finishing second, Leclerc said he really enjoyed the race.
“We are on a street track, we’ve been pushing like I’ve rarely pushed before, to the absolute limits and we take risks at the end,” said Leclerc. “So of course there is respect, but I’m a bit disappointed.”
Leclerc leads Verstappen by 20 points heading into the Australian GP and so far, the battle has been hard, but fair. It’s a contrast to some of the duels between Verstappen and Hamilton in 2021.
Don’t be surprised if the “clean” factor changes soon between Ferrari and Red Bull though because all it takes is one incident for the gloves to come off.
Both drivers want to get plenty of points on the board, in case Mercedes come back at them later in the season. This is something Verstappen is aware of, which might answer why he hasn’t been as aggressive against Leclerc compared to Hamilton in the first two races.
Verstappen and Leclerc are at the top of their game and 2022 has arguably been the most exciting start to an F1 season ever. The best thing is, it will only get better as the intensity ramps up throughout the year.