It’s not often that a professional athlete revels in the fun of being narrowly beaten in the closing stages of a raging sporting competition by a long-time adversary, but that’s exactly what Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc did after finish less than a second. behind Max Verstappen at Formula 1’s stellar Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday night.
“Today wasn’t enough, but oh my gosh I really enjoyed that race… All races should be like this!” smiled the Monegasque in his post-race interview, sweat trickling down his cheeks in the thick heat of the Gulf after. little less than two hours touring one of the most dangerous and physically demanding tracks in world motorsports at speeds that literally border on vertigo.
That he had finished second after spending most of the race in first place was not Leclerc’s main concern once the checkered flag waved; instead, the sheer thrill of fighting Verstappen so closely was enough to make the Ferrari driver feel truly giddy about the upcoming season.
Last season, as Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton locked in a title fight that ranks among the most intense Formula 1 has produced in its seven-decade history, Leclerc battled midfield runners for point totals. solid but unspectacular in the Ferrari machine, which was fundamentally incapable of allowing him to compete for wins.
But the 2022 campaign has heralded a regulation change that has revolutionized the way F1 races are conducted and has played entirely in Leclerc’s favour.
All ten teams have been forced to completely redesign their cars in an effort to counter a problem that blighted the previous era of racing: loss of downforce. Previously, F1 cars lost a significant proportion of their downforce when closely following the car in front, making following at speed immensely difficult and overtaking infrequent. The rules were changed so that, in theory, new cars could follow each other more closely, meaning drivers could race harder.
After two races, F1 appears to have absolutely nailed its revamped rulebook. In the opening rounds at Sakhir and Jeddah, Leclerc and Verstappen have spent successive laps trading the lead back and forth, battling around every corner in a battle of wits as both men have used tricks and quirks to try to outwit their opponents. opponent to make a mistake. . Neither of them has been able to take the lead because the ease with which they can follow each other means that there are never more than a few cars distance between them.
What would once have been a one-move overtaking situation is now a breathless, rhythmic dance through corners where nothing can be taken for granted and the audience can barely pick a moment to catch a breath. While the cars themselves are a huge part of the upgrade, the combination of Leclerc’s patient driving style and laid-back temperament make him the ideal conduit for the new form of racing.
On Sunday in Jeddah, once Sergio Perez had dropped back to fourth due to a desperately unlucky pit stop behind the safety car, Leclerc and Verstappen led the pack on the restart. The world champion, as he did behind Hamilton ahead of the final lap at the Abu Dhabi season finale in December, tried to toy with Leclerc, stopping alongside Ferrari in the final sector, stepping on and off the throttle in an effort to disturb him.
The sight of a confident, aggressive and fast world champion a meter or two away would be enough to stun many a top level driver into submission. However, Leclerc handled the restart to perfection, dragging Verstappen into the dirty, rubber-marble-laden part of the circuit and hitting the accelerator at just the right moment to launch with perfect traction and maintain the lead.
Later, after a virtual safety car period following freakishly quick back-to-back retirements from Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, Verstappen latched onto Leclerc’s gearbox again with just a few laps to go. Leclerc allowed Verstappen to take the lead into the final corner, before using the DRS advantage at the pit stop to immediately reclaim it, in a carbon copy of the tactic he employed to hold the lead in Bahrain the previous weekend. .
Just four months ago, this was the track where Verstappen and Hamilton’s battle descended into pure chaos, the pair going off the track at Turn 1 countless times as they pushed the limits of the rules to outdo each other, before making incomprehensible contact at low speed. speed during a dispute over legitimate track position in the eyes of the stewards.
The contrast here could not have been more stark. Leclerc and Verstappen rose through the junior ranks in the same generation and for more than a decade have battled each other for victories in kart racing, entry-level single-seaters and now the fastest racing machinery on the planet. That shared history has allowed them to develop an innate understanding of each other’s tactics, habits, personality and limits on a circuit. At least so far, they know exactly when and where to push each other and when to back down.
Eventually, Verstappen simply had too much straight-line speed in his Red Bull for Leclerc to handle the pressure, and a late set of fluttering yellow flags after Alex Albon swept his Williams into the sidepod of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin meant he was gave him a chance. reprieve just when it looked like Leclerc might mount another comeback.
Verstappen’s pristine Leclerc tactical handling so far demonstrates the core intelligence of his driving, which makes him such a fascinating championship contender. The race between the two has been sensational, relentless at times, but always within the lines of justice and respect. With a win each and Hamilton languishing in a Mercedes that is far from the pace of the favourites, the pair seem destined to be Formula 1’s stars in 2022.
The car development war between their respective teams will determine who drives the fastest car as the season progresses and will play a big role in determining the championship winner. But for now, Leclerc has exactly the right idea: all racing should be like this, and as long as he continues the raving revolution, there is good reason for everyone involved to be smiling.