Charles Leclerc, the friendly rival of Max Verstappen

If you type the phrase “Verstappen Leclerc karting” on YouTube, you’ll find a clip almost immediately from 2012. The venue is the kart track in Val d’Argenton in France, where the WSK Euro Series karting tour takes place. Two teenage boys are interviewed about a collision that just happened on a track soaked in rain.

In primary school one tells English with a distinct Limburg accent, while still steaming in one’s ears, how his opponent ruthlessly pushed him off course: „it is not fair† Others shrug their shoulders when asked what happened and say in clear “Allo Allo” English:no thing. just an accident

Fast forward ten years and these two young men would cross swords again on the track, only now were they getting older and wiser. This season, Charles Leclerc (24) and Max Verstappen (24) are in charge in Formula 1 and their relationship is now primarily characterized by mutual respect. “It wasn’t enough today, but my gosh, I really enjoyed the race,” Leclerc declared after his stunning loss to Verstappen in Jeddah. “Every race has to be like this. Max did a great job and it was a great race.”

It’s a new sensation for Formula 1 viewers: After years of a fierce battle against Lewis Hamilton, there is now a new challenger for Verstappen. In this case, it is not an established star, but a young Monaco youth who, like Verstappen, is still at the relative beginning of his career and is credited with a great future. Although Verstappen and Red Bull made a false start with retirements in three races, the Dutchman again took the reins this weekend at Imola to the fullest, reducing the early deficit to Leclerc, who finished sixth on Sunday: from 46 to 27 points.

like a missile

The story goes that Charles Leclerc was recommended to him by one of his close friends, Jules Bianchi who tragically passed away in 2015. The Frenchman was once in the same position as Leclerc: he was the famous heir to the Ferrari, and the star pupil at the Ferrari Drivers Academy. His promise was shattered by a fatal accident in torrential Suzuka rain in October 2014. He died in July 2015 after a nine-month artificial coma.

During 2014, Leclerc took his first steps in Formula cars, after which he shot up the training ladder like a rocket. Formula Renault, Formula 3, GP3 and finally Formula 2: None of these racing classes had many secrets. The way he won the F2 title in 2017 as a freshman was absolutely amazing. In the first six weekends of the race, Leclerc took six pole positions and regularly led the field at a very disadvantage – in a class where everyone rides with the same equipment.

So Leclerc was ready for Formula 1. To allow him to mature into Lee, Ferrari stockpiled him in 2018 with sister team Alfa Romeo Sauber. There he single-handedly ended Marcus Ericsson’s Formula One career. Leclerc did not miss the Swede, who was in his fifth season at the time, and scored like non-veteran More than four times the World Cup points as his teammate. Ferrari saw enough and promoted Leclerc to the mother ship after one season of Formula 1, at the expense of veteran Kimi Raikkonen.

With that, he did what Bianchi had in mind: conquer a place in the academy from the academy Scuderia† Also at Ferrari, it soon became apparent that Leclerc had little interest in getting into an established name and reputation. In addition to four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, he can learn the tricks of the trade, or so he thinks. But the reality turned out differently: Leclerc defeated Vettel outright in 2019. He took more pole positions, won more races, finished on the podium more often, and finished the fourth season ahead of Vettel.

A year later, Vettel’s meltdown was complete: the German accumulated foul after foul as Leclerc made himself indispensable at Ferrari. He left Vettel with his tail between his legs, while Leclerc was meanwhile rewarded with a new long-term contract until 2024. So it is not unexpected that Leclerc is now emerging as the championship leader: his star has been rising for years and, like Verstappen, it is de Monegask that many look up to. Experts say he is one of the new generation of drivers who will be at the fore in the coming years.

Max Verstappen (Red Bull) was twice as strong as Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) at Imola: Saturday in the sprint and Sunday in the Grand Prix.
Photo by Massimo Benca/Reuters

different dynamics

The dynamic between Verstappen and Leclerc is very different from that between Verstappen and Hamilton. Leclerc is especially happy to finally have a car at his disposal with which he can compete for the world title. How different it was for Hamilton, the seven-time champion who saw his position as the undisputed great leader attacked by a Maaseik boy, and thus perhaps even more ferocious at times.

This different dynamic ensures that both Verstappen and Leclerc give the light in the eye, as has become evident in the first races of the season – a welcome change from the sometimes very bleak relationships of 2021. For the juniors (Verstappen is sixteen days older) They haven’t stood the test of time and haven’t necessarily been on a record quest yet. If all goes well, they will have another 15 years in Formula 1. If it doesn’t work out this year, it will be next year.

What also helps is that both Leclerc and Verstappen are very mature and really stable. Both underwent legendary Formula 3 apprenticeships at Van Amersfoort Racing, under the inspiring leadership of “Uncle Frits”: Verstappen in 2014, Leclerc a year later. Verstappen then made his first division debut at the age of seventeen, especially after being promoted to Red Bull when he was eighteen, and had to grow up rapidly.

Leclerc, in turn, has already had to deal with a lot of setbacks off the track. In five years, he lost three people who were very important to him: Bianchi in 2014, his father in 2017 and his best friend Antoine Hubert in 2019. Days after his father’s death, he won a Formula 2 race due to force majeure. He saw the fatal meltdown of F2 Hubert’s talent in Spa happen live; A day later he won the Belgian Grand Prix on the same circuit, his first victory in Formula 1. If there’s anyone who can channel personal setbacks and put sporting setbacks into perspective, it’s Leclerc.

teething problems

However, the relationship between Leclerc and Verstappen is not always harmonious, as the collision on the kart circuit in 2012 shows. There is also precedent in Formula 1: Three years ago, during the Austrian Grand Prix, Verstappen and Leclerc struggled to win until the end. Two rounds left, the Dutchman made an overtaking attempt as he hit Leclerc from the front and eventually crossed the finish line first. Leclerc was not impressed and claimed Verstappen left him nowhere.

Just hours after that finish, the hosts decided that Verstappen’s penalty was a very good thing, making his victory official. With this incident in mind, it is entirely conceivable that cracks would also appear in the present front of mutual friendliness. In the end, both Leclerc and Verstappen have generated champions who want to win at all costs. So the potential for a new collision is always latent, especially as the season progresses and the tension increases.

But before that can happen, Red Bull must first get reliability in order and filter out the remaining teething problems from the RB18. At Imola there was no problem this weekend and the team scored the maximum – Sergio Perez came second – but the fast Red Bull is not as reliable as required and that has already cost the necessary points. However, a dominant performance at Imola will give Verstappen confidence. Additionally, he hopes for a drop in quality at Ferrari, or at least a return of some Italian turmoil. Because like Leclerc’s costly mistake, he veered off the track and lost a lot of places, and a difficult weekend showed for teammate Carlos Sainz: a bit of chaos is not far away at Ferrari.

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