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Verstappen-Leclerc duel promises F1 surge

Leclerc, who set a lap record to qualify his Ferrari at the front, looked set at the head of the field and controlled the race beautifully, the Monégasque driver keeping the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas comfortably out of challenging range, never looking at risk.

other sports Updated: Jul 02, 2019 12:32 IST
Raja Sen
Raja Sen
Sebastian Vettel,Lewis Hamilton,Max Verstappen
Formula One F1 - Austrian Grand Prix - Red Bull Ring, Spielberg, Austria - June 30, 2019 Red Bull's Max Verstappen celebrates after winning the race as second placed Ferrari's Charles Leclerc looks dejected on the podium(REUTERS)

With one lap of the Austrian Grand Prix to go, Sebastian Vettel swooped past Lewis Hamilton. Vettel’s Ferrari had shaved over 8 seconds on the Mercedes driver ahead, and Hamilton couldn’t do a thing to hold back the Ferrari driver (who started ninth) on newer soft tyres as he swung effortlessly past to take fourth place. This is the big moment Formula One has been clamouring for all year, where the duelling swords between these two drivers finally looked double-edged, at least for one race.

Yet, it didn’t matter. The kids in front turned these world champions—with an astonishing nine titles between them—into a postscript. All eyes and ears belonged to the 21-year-old karting rivals battling for the Grand Prix, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Verstappen, the hotshot Dutch driver, enjoys vociferous orange-shirted support in Austria, home ground for Red Bull, and delivered a truly epic drive despite a horrendous start, slipping from second to eighth place.

Leclerc, who set a lap record to qualify his Ferrari at the front, looked set at the head of the field and controlled the race beautifully, the Monégasque driver keeping the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas comfortably out of challenging range, never looking at risk.

Never, that is, till Verstappen stayed out longer than the cars ahead, kept lap times consistent, and switched on his true pace in the last third of the race, baring overtaking fangs to feast on the cars ahead.

Leclerc had no quarter. The Verstappen threat defied anticipation, and as the Dutch driver snuck up, Leclerc snapped at the Ferrari pit crew on the radio informing him how close he was.

“Leave me alone,” said the young Frenchman, eager to take his maiden victory after having come so close in Bahrain this year, tragically denied a win by an engine blowout. He tried hard but on lap 69 of 71, to the hysteria of the orange stands, Verstappen banged wheels with Leclerc and took the lead.

With off-track contact made between drivers, stewards stepped in to see if Verstappen had left Leclerc enough room (he hadn’t) or if Leclerc had taken the wrong line (he had).

Consistency would call for a time-penalty like the one (shamefully) given to Vettel in Canada, but this time F1 stewards—perhaps fearful of the damning goodbyes waved to the sport by loyal fans after the depressingly dull French race—decided to let racers be racers. Hallelujah. Max takes this round, and we look forward to this glorious dogfight (between two drivers barely old enough to drink the champagne they win) lasting us the next two decades. We’ve seen the future, baby—it is younger.

(Raja Sen is a film critic and India’s longest-running F1 columnist.)

First Published: Jul 02, 2019 11:15 IST