Max Verstappen vs Charles Leclerc is destined to be an F1 rivalry for the ages

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“I’m leading, he wants to pass. He pushed me off the track. It’s not fair,” an infuriated Max Verstappen explained.

Asked about the same incident moments later, Charles Leclerc shrugged and responded: “Nothing [happened], just an incident in the race.”

They were only 14 years old when TKartMagazine got a quick line from each of them after a heated race of the WSK Euro Series in 2012 but a fierce rivalry had already materialised.

Fast forward seven years and the two drivers have upgraded from go-karts to the finest machinery in motorsport but the dialogue remains eerily familiar, apart from the fact that they swapped lines.

Verstappen’s gutsy overtake in the penultimate lap of the Austrian Grand Prix denied Leclerc his maiden Formula One win last weekend. The two bumped wheels and the Monegasque found himself off the track, questioning the legality of the manoeuvre.

It was hard racing, sure, but within the confines of the regulations – a conclusion the FIA stewards eventually arrived at after over three hours of deliberations.

It meant Verstappen would keep the victory at Red Bull’s home circuit ahead of a seething Leclerc and just like that, we may have had our first taste of F1’s next great rivalry.

The narrative at Spielberg was laid out early that weekend with Leclerc dominating the time sheets in practice and storming to pole in qualifying. A penalty for Lewis Hamilton dropped him down to P4 which saw Verstappen join the Ferrari driver in the front row – the youngest in F1 history.

Hopes of the two battling it out during the race suffered a huge blow after the Dutchman’s catastrophic start but in high temperatures, tyre strategies proved crucial and the Red Bull driver benefited.

There was still an extraordinary amount of work for Verstappen to do though and he had to access every last bit of his immense talent to work his way up the order in a scintillating drive that produced a series of fastest laps.

Leclerc was flawless all weekend but with the win in his sights, he suddenly had Verstappen all over his gearbox heading into the last few laps.

Cheered on by his adoring Orange army, the Dutch star pulled off a stunning move to pass his old foe and take the chequered flag.

It was a tremendous display from a phenomenal driver who has been pegged as a future world champion – and quite possibly the youngest – ever since he won his maiden Grand Prix in Spain three years ago on his Red Bull debut at the tender age of 18.

But in Leclerc he finds an equal who has as much chance as he does of beating Sebastian Vettel’s record (23 years and 134 days old) given that both drivers are 21 and born within three weeks of each other.

Though Verstappen’s eye-catching overtakes in Austria were sublime, they shouldn’t take away from Leclerc’s superb drive.

The Frenchman never put a foot wrong and the manner in which he fended off Verstappen with far more degraded tyres than his counterpart for a couple of laps before eventually succumbing in lap 69 was utterly brilliant.

In lap 67, Verstappen looked to pounce coming up to Turn 3 but Leclerc occupied the middle before shutting the door on the inside as they rounded the corner.

The following lap, at the same juncture, Verstappen dove early down the inside but having been afforded the space, Leclerc recovered superbly. Quicker on the throttle, he accelerated out of the turn to get back in front before braking late into Turn 4 to deny the advancing Verstappen again.

It won’t get the credit it deserves but that show of resistance was star quality.

If nothing else, it proved what a gifted driver Leclerc is and one worthy of going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen at every opportunity.

It’s too early to suggest this rivalry is the next Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost, ludicrous even.

However, the feud has long since been bubbling under the surface and may have reached a simmer after temperatures were raised in Spielberg.

Now there’s inevitability about it boiling over. Watch this pot.

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