Verstappen vs. Leclerc keeps us gripped
In the wake of the troubling events that clouded Friday, F1 needed its stars to provide a sporting distraction of epic proportions – and Verstappen and Leclerc duly obliged. In a surprisingly clean race that featured only one full safety car period and a later Virtual Safety Car interlude, Leclerc and Verstappen joined battle with nine laps to run. The Bahrain GP winner had started from the front row, Max a grumpy fourth – but now the Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage ensured a power swing in an increasingly engaging rivalry between the old karting rivals. Verstappen closed in and used DRS to pass on lap 42 into the final corner, but his rival was boxing clever: Leclerc ensured the Red Bull was ahead by the time they passed the DRS detection line on the way into the turn, which meant he could open his rear wing as they started the next lap and re-take the lead.
Verstappen was going to have to be equally smart to win this one. This time as they approached the final turn the red car seemed to invite the blue one down the inside into Turn 27, but we had the intriguing scenario of Verstappen not wanting to take the lead – because he knew he’d be vulnerable again to the counter-attack into Turn 1. Max locked up in his haste not to lead, Leclerc floored the throttle and exited out of range. Tasty stuff.
But it was clear Verstappen had the speed to try again. As in Bahrain, there had been a stream of angry radio calls to his (slightly exasperated) pit wall, questioning Leclerc breaking a pit entry white-line rule and the Ferrari apparently going too quickly through yellow flag zones, but he certainly kept his cool when it mattered. On lap 47 of 50 the champion positioned his car perfectly on the run to Turn 27 and had a relatively simple job drafting past well ahead of Turn 1, where Leclerc out-braked himself. But the Bahrain GP winner is clearly not rattled going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen and kept chasing all the way to the line. He just lacked the puff to hit back. “That was good,” said a pumped Verstappen with understatement, while magnanimous Leclerc dealt with his disappointment with grace by radioing in: “Well done to Max. That was nice. We lacked a bit of straight-line speed.”
So plenty of respect between this pair, but these are the early parries of what looks set to be a season-long duel. As we saw with Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton last year, it might not always be this harmonious as the battle progresses.