PALMER: Why Leclerc and Verstappen’s battle in Bahrain heralded a new era of wheel-to-wheel racing

There has been a lot of buzz around new cars this year. They look great, they’re giving the drivers more of a challenge in the cockpit, but if there was one moment at the Bahrain Grand Prix that really brought out the excitement of it all and the reason this generation of cars was brought in, it was that they battle for the leadership.

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen led the way for their teams and it was very difficult to split them up all weekend.

They had brilliant fights in the past, including a decisive fight at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2019 and an epic die at Silverstone in the following race, but this fight was the best of them all, and it was one of the best too. Formula 1 racing action has been around for a long time, and for a variety of reasons.

The length of the wheel-to-wheel scrapping was simply hard to believe. When Leclerc pitted on lap 16, he was immediately hounded by Verstappen, who had his soft tires in the zone and joined him in the first sector.

Leclerc hadn’t shaken off Verstappen until midway through lap 19 and in the meantime the two had traded places a total of six times.

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Jolyon Palmer analysis: Leclerc and Verstappen’s epic battle in Bahrain

How was it possible that this fight lasted so long?

First of all, because of the tactics involved.

Against some expectations for 2022, the DRS still proved powerful, so every time Verstappen was able to get within a second, he was able to get close and make a legitimate pass to Leclerc, especially the first time he asked when he had great closing speed.

But because of the way DRS works in Bahrain, Leclerc was able to pick up that extra speed at Turn 4, which meant Verstappen immediately became the defender as the roles kept changing. In this case, DRS helped the oncoming car stay in the fight.

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Leclerc was also driving tactically, as he tried to do in Austria in 2019. Having been blindsided by Verstappen in the first instance, he quickly realized the power of retaliatory DRS at Turn 4. This meant he was no longer defending the inside at Turn 1. over the next two laps, allowing the Red Bull an easier overtake each time, but making sure to have DRS at the start and a great run back up front.

In this case, the track lent itself perfectly to this style of racing, and Leclerc handled it almost perfectly, allowing him to switch places, instead of fighting tooth and nail through Turn 1 and then sitting in the corner. . Turn 4.


Leclerc knew the power of having DRS heading into Turn 4

The new generation of cars shows their stuff

The cars have also made a big difference. Clearly the aero revision that has been carried out has allowed the cars to follow more closely. Perhaps we will see the true effect on a circuit where overtaking is notoriously more difficult, but in Bahrain it allowed Verstappen to stay close to Leclerc in the twisty parts of the lap where, in the past, you would lose more downforce.

The high-speed section of Turns 11 to 13 has always been difficult to follow and the cars are usually spread out slightly between the back straight and the DRS zone on the main straight. This was evident in particular with Max Verstappen 12 months ago when he slid wide into Turn 13 with an oversteer behind Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps of the race after rescinding the lead, something he was never able to do. recuperate. That was despite the fact that he had a much bigger pace advantage over the Mercedes than he did over the Ferrari in 2022.

It could certainly be closer this year, and with dirty air being less of a hindrance, the tires didn’t overheat as much either, thanks to reduced slippage and possibly also Pirelli’s change in construction.

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It is clear that following has become much easier this year with the new generation of cars.

Respect on the track

Finally, credit must also go to both drivers for racing fairly and respectfully, something that seemed to be forgotten from time to time in 2021, and in recent years in general.

There has been a great divide in the debate over ‘what is a fair race’ in current times, but I have always thought that forcing cars to go wide does not lead to good racing action.

If Verstappen were racing Leclerc as he did in Austria in 2019, or Hamilton for much of last year, the battle could have ended on lap 17 and with more acrimony.

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Leclerc and Verstappen fought hard, but fair

The Verstappen of yesteryear would likely have sent a lunge to Leclerc at Turn 4, the first time the Monegasque driver had passed him. He likely would have ended up with both running wide in a Brazil replay last year, but he probably could have taken the position and then left the debate to the stewards, as he did repeatedly late last year.

Race officials have been a little clearer with their expectations this year – that room should be left for cars in wheel-to-wheel combat – and perhaps Verstappen had that in mind, or perhaps he just decided to play the long game in the championship and not risk it all in the first race. Either way, the fact that space was routinely given from both quarters kept this show entertaining lap after lap.

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With the Red Bulls in trouble over the death, the reality is that this battle didn’t count for much. But it nonetheless sets up a stalemate for what could be a great fight between these old adversaries this season, in cars that give them a chance to square off in spectacular fashion.

We hope that both the battles and the respect continue for the remainder of the year.

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