Max Verstappen (L) of Red Bull and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari were third and fourth last year behind Hamilton and Vettel.(Getty Images)
Max Verstappen (L) of Red Bull and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari were third and fourth last year behind Hamilton and Vettel.(Getty Images)

Can F1’s young guns dethrone King Lewis?

OPENER: Leclerc-Verstappen duels could signal a new F1 era as season flags off in Austria
Hindustan Times, Mumbai | By Rajesh Pansare
UPDATED ON JUL 04, 2020 06:53 AM IST

Last year’s Austrian Grand Prix may have given us a glimpse into Formula One’s future. Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen started on the front row—the youngest in F1 history. They raced wheel-to-wheel before Verstappen overtook Leclerc in the homestretch.

Leclerc felt Verstappen should have been penalised for pushing him off the track. Verstappen felt he was just racing. It laid the foundation for a new F1 rivalry, one which would breathe fresh air into the sport, one that everyone was looking forward to in the Australian Grand Prix but the season couldn’t start to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last season, Verstappen finished third with 278 point with three wins and eight podiums. With an equal number of podiums, Leclerc was fourth with 264 points and two wins.

The revised 2020 Formula One season will begin in Austria on Saturday. Lewis Hamilton will again start as the favourite, seeking his fourth successive title with Mercedes and seventh overall. But the new guard—Verstappen in Red Bull and Leclerc in Ferrari—are mature enough to challenge the Briton and Mercedes’ dominance.

Leclerc and Verstappen are 22. Like most F1 rivalries, theirs began in 2011 at K3 Karting Cup, one of the top events in Europe. On way to winning, Leclerc barged into Verstappen and forced him out. Four years later, Red Bull gave Verstappen a seat at their feeder team Torro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). At 17 years and 166 days, he was the youngest driver ever to start an F1 race.

Aggression, Max style

While Verstappen was criticised for aggressive driving early in his career, he is one of the hottest properties in F1. In 2016, four races into the season, he was bumped up to Red Bull and at 18, became the youngest F1 race winner. Now, there is a feeling in the paddocks that Verstappen, while still aggressive, has matured enough to challenge for the top.

“Max is the hot new guy,” Hamilton told ‘De Telegraaf’. “There’s a big hype around him but the best way to end it is to keep beating him.” Last season was considered as coming of age for Verstappen because he improved every weekend.

Team principal Christian Horner says the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix changed Verstaoppen. There he had damaged his car in practice and couldn’t take part in qualifying. “It was probably the lowest weekend of his career,” said Horner. “That was very tough for him, and I think he went away from that race, and he reflected hard on it.”

Praise from Vettel

Leclerc, who was backed by Ferrari, followed a more traditional path into F1. He raced in the feeder championships, winning the GP 2 and Formula 2 titles in 2016 and 2017 and performed testing duties for Haas and Sauber.

In 2018, he was picked by Sauber and, like Verstappen, earned immediate praise. “If there’s no hype around him then I don’t understand who should be hyped, because when you walk through all the different racing categories like that, then you belong in F1. He’s scoring points in a car that doesn’t belong in the points,” said Vettel of Leclerc, who had scored points in 10 races with Sauber.

Even Vettel wouldn’t have imagined that two seasons later Leclerc would be the lead guy at Ferrari pushing him to the verge of exiting the sport.

While Verstappen is considered to be the fastest on the circuit, Leclerc is more measured and methodical. But that duel in Spielberg in 2019 changed the way Leclerc raced. He became unafraid of the consequences and decided to take on Verstappen, Hamilton and teammate Vettel.

“Last year I lost to Max in Austria, but immediately after that I changed my driving style and I became more aggressive in Silverstone,” Leclerc was quoted as saying by French magazine ‘l’Automobile’ in April.

Three races later, at the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix, Leclerc beat Hamilton for his first win. “It’s not easy for any driver to jump into a top team, let alone Ferrari... and then to be continuous from race one, out-perform, out-qualify and out-drive a four-time world champion is not easy to do. So, there’s a lot more greatness to come from him and I’m looking forward to seeing his growth and racing alongside him,” said Hamilton.

Leclerc though is playing down his chances. “We still have this question mark, and we still need to wait for qualifying to be sure of what we say even though we are 99 per cent sure we will be struggling more than last year,” he said. Leclerc was referring to Ferrari’s inability to get upgrades in the first two races in Austria.

Hamilton though expects a close fight. “It was quite close between the top three teams in testing—I think Red Bull particularly being the closest to us. And Max is progressing year on year, so I anticipate they are going to be strong competitors,” said the 35-year-old.

Verstappen is raring to go as well. “I love it, the more fights on track the better. There are moments where it will be hard but I like that and Lewis likes that as well,” he was quoted as saying by the Guardian.

Hamilton and Vettel have won 10 titles between them since 2010 but there is feeling that change of guard is around the corner.

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