Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. The 24-year-old Dutchman and Monegasque have been heralded as the F1 stars of their generation for almost half a decade at this rate.
In Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, we finally got to see them strut their stuff against each other in frontrunning cars - and it was a mouthwatering taste of what's to come in the new era of F1.
Bahrain GP: Verstappen v Leclerc looks like the future of F1
New rules come around in Formula 1 every three to four years, but there have seldom been changes of rules quite as drastic as those for 2022. The regulations fundamentally change how the cars generate downforce and, with changes to the fuel used in the cars, the engines have also seen big alterations.
These cars are (in theory) unrecognisable from those that finished the 2021 season. These changes brought with them question marks about any changes to the running order - would Mercedes stay on top, or would a new frontrunner appear?
In Bahrain, we got our answer. Ferrari and Red Bull look locked in a serious battle for said frontrunner spot, with the perennial winners at Mercedes looking to be in a spot of bother behind them. Ferrari took a 1-3 in qualifying, with Red Bull right behind in second and fourth.
It's hard to see Mercedes languishing this far behind for the entire season but, for the first time since 2013, we emerge from the opening race with frontrunners other than the Silver Arrows. And at the centre of it all, the two stars of F1's next generation: Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.
Ever since Charles Leclerc joined Ferrari in 2019, there has been talk of the "fight of the future" between himself and Max Verstappen in the Red Bull.
2019 brought many clashes between the two on track, most notably when they battled for the lead in Austria. Verstappen ultimately came out on top - but not after the two bumped wheels at turn three. The two have a history going all the way back to their karting days, with the two having raced against each other in European karting championships throughout their early teens.
We've been waiting for nigh on three years now for the two to be in equal cars again and fighting for wins. On Sunday, we finally got that scenario again - and, this time, they weren't merely fighting for wins on an off day for Mercedes. Their F1 teams look like genuine front-of-the-pack material, and it seems as though we will be getting used to the sight of Verstappen and Leclerc battling for wins throughout 2022.
Perfect race-craft, lap after lap 🤤
The new era is just getting started...#BahrainGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/BEb9shBRI4
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 21, 2022
Verstappen has proven himself in F1. He is now a world champion. One of my biggest questions going into this season was whether Leclerc could handle the pressure of being a title contender, if the supposed pace in the Ferrari proved to be legitimate. He showed on Sunday that he has matured immeasurably since his last season of vying for wins in the Ferrari.
Leclerc has shown some of the best raw pace on the grid for the past four seasons - perhaps best showcased by the fact he has ten pole positions, but only three race wins - a rather bizarrely lopsided statistic.
That stat also points to another element of Leclerc's race craft that has proven to be a major vice in recent years. He has tended to push the car too far on multiple occasions and, despite having his fair share of bad luck, he has been the architect of his own downfall on too many occasions.
Qualifying in Monaco last year saw him crash having already sealed pole - the damage to his car ultimately prevented him starting the race on Sunday, and cost him a home race win. Similarly, he threw away a certain podium at Turkey 2020 with a wild lunge down the inside of Sergio Perez.
Not how Charles Leclerc would have expected to take his eighth pole position 😱#MonacoGP 🇲🇨 #F1 pic.twitter.com/1Dq2Sg4Y7Q
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 22, 2021
They are but two of a slew of moments in which Leclerc has been the cause of his own shortcomings. On Sunday, the Monegasque driver put in a calm, composed drive that showed he has begun to grow past that. Despite repeated assaults from Verstappen, a late safety car, and the chaos going on around him, Leclerc never really looked like relinquishing his lead.
In similar circumstances in Austria in 2019, and Silverstone in 2021, Leclerc gave up race wins late on by caving in to pressure from chasing cars. In Sakhir on Sunday night, he instead forced Verstappen into a mistake (his major lock up into turn one), proving that he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2022.
It's hard to read too much into the opening race, of course. But Bahrain is a balanced track. It has lots of straights, plenty of fast, sweeping corners, and a handful of tricky slow ones. To be quick at Bahrain, you need to have a quick overall car, and the Ferrari looks quick.
If the Ferrari is this quick all season long, and Leclerc really has ironed out those mistakes from his race craft, we could be taking a title charge very seriously. He seemed in jovial, relaxed spirits after the race and, such was his composure in the car throughout the race, he even made a joke to his engineers about a car failure on the final lap.
"I did a bit of the joke on the radio in the last lap saying there was something strange in the engine." 🤣
Charles Leclerc says he didn't feel threatened by Max Verstappen despite the Red Bull driver almost overtaking him a few times. pic.twitter.com/UjAuwlR1Kz
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 20, 2022
Leclerc is brimming with pace and exudes a calm energy we haven't seen from him before. It's early days, but Max Verstappen will be looking anxiously at the good energy coming from Leclerc.
Which brings us to Max himself. The defending world champion will be shaking his head leaving Sakhir, wondering how on earth his team found themselves with 0 points, and last year's rival Lewis Hamilton stumbled onto the podium despite being an anonymous presence in the race.
Contrasting to Leclerc, Verstappen occasionally looked ragged during the race. His major lock up when attempting to overtake the Ferrari was a wild moment, that cost him majorly during his second stint, and his constant frustration with his team was a worrying relapse into the "Max of old".
Nonetheless, his pace was strong all weekend. The Red Bull looks like a phenomenal car overall, with only reliability concerns to take away from Bahrain. The fact that both cars saw terminal engine failures - as well as their sister team of AlphaTauri - does not bode well, but they will have plenty of data to analyse ahead of the upcoming races.
Verstappen has never won the opening race of the season. Last year, it served him well, as the second race brought a fired up Max, who went on to put in arguably his drive of the season at Imola. Given the obvious frustration that will have come with the DNF, and his own mistakes during the race, you would have to expect a similarly fired up Verstappen to arrive in Jeddah next weekend.
It seems funny to say it now after 2021. We spent most of last year saying that Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen was the battle we had been waiting for in F1. But, on an evening when the new generations of cars finally got their first run out, this felt like the first glimpse of the new era of F1 and, with it, the next great rivalry: Max Verstappen vs Charles Leclerc.
Rounding up from the Bahrain Grand Prix
- Driver of the day: Easy enough to go for Charles Leclerc or Kevin Magnussen, who came home in a scarcely believable fifth for Haas. But I'm going to plump for Zhou Guanyu. With question marks surrounding his pace, Zhou put in a brilliant shift on his Formula 1 debut to take 10th place and seal a double points finish for Alfa Romeo, moving up five places from the start and finishing ahead of both McLarens and Mick Schumacher.
- Day to forget: Red Bull Powertrains had their first outing in Formula 1 on Sunday, having taken over from Honda as engine suppliers for Red Bull and AlphaTauri. Fuel issues for both Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez caused both teams to retire and the team to lose out on a potential double podium, while the AlphaTauri of Gasly caught fire in the late stages. Yikes.
- The big question for Round #2: Where will Mercedes filter in? They looked way off it in qualifying and, if it wasn't for the late safety car and double Red Bull retirement, Lewis Hamilton would have been nowhere near the podium. Hamilton, however, did have immense pace around Saudi Arabia last year, and that it is where we go next. They will be hoping to climb up the field quickly, before too much ground is lost on the front of the pack.