The British Grand Prix was the scene of the first big implosion of the thrilling Formula 1 title battle in 2021, so could a similar flashpoint between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc happen this weekend? -end?
The 2022 season started with brilliant wheel-to-wheel battles between Verstappen and Leclerc in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
But since Verstappen beat Leclerc in the inaugural Miami GP via an early overtake, there have been few encounters on the track between the two title rivals.
And with Verstappen winning five of the last six races, Leclerc and Ferrari are now firmly on their backs, with Leclerc having a 49-point deficit to make up.
So, could this lead Leclerc to take more risks fighting Verstappen?
“For Leclerc, it’s almost a case of nothing to lose. If he and Verstappen go 50/50 in a corner and Verstappen doesn’t give in, what does Leclerc have to lose from a collision? Scott Mitchell said on this week’s episode of The Race F1 podcast.
“I don’t think he’s going to go out there – that’s the distinction I always make with aggressive drivers – and deliberately cause crashes, but I wonder if there will be an element of not caring. if there is an accident because it is not he who has the massive spikes lead to protect.
“It will be very interesting to see. Generally speaking, Leclerc isn’t the kind of driver who absolutely sends one inside miles back, but he can be very effective in combat.
“He has a bit of history with Verstappen; they have a long-standing rivalry. It developed into one that was eventually underpinned by respect, so I don’t think it’s necessarily going to get nasty.
“But I think, because Leclerc has to take risks, because of the way we know Verstappen is wired, there could absolutely be a situation where they go wheel to wheel this year. They haven’t done it for a few races, so it was a little weird.
“I don’t think either of them will necessarily back down. It seems almost inevitable that there will be some flashpoint.
Mitchell thinks it would take “time” for the Verstappen/Leclerc battle to reach the angst that Verstappen/Hamilton reached last year.
“One of the reasons it got so tense between them [Verstappen and Hamilton] and overwhelmed, it was because there was a handful of points between them, and one position could swing the championship completely the other way,” he added.
“While there is a little more room [between Verstappen and Leclerc] and so for Verstappen, one race doesn’t make or break everything.
“It will be very interesting. It all depends on their respective mentalities. I think you can probably say that the situation could play out in about 10 different ways.
The Verstappen/Leclerc dynamic is obviously “a bit different” this year and Edd Straw believes the FIA’s clarification of racing rules ahead of the start of the season has led to a change in the way Verstappen races.
“I think it shed slightly different lights on what would and wouldn’t be allowed,” Straw added.
“And I think Verstappen took that into account as well because he’s a racing driver, a sporting competitor, so he’ll do what he thinks the rules allow.
“He’s adjusted a bit this year, and any good smart driver will do.”
“One thing that interests me, given that we are returning to Silverstone, is if Verstappen changes his approach slightly when he is in a strong position.
“Obviously last year at Silverstone he was 33 points ahead [going into the grand prix].
“Verstappen was not responsible for the Copse collision but I’m still looking at how the drivers could have played him.
“Verstappen, with the position he was in, would probably have been better off thinking that stealth was the best part of bravery on this particular occasion, and that would have helped him on a championship level.
“It will be interesting if there is a situation where he is attacked by Leclerc, if he is ready to give up a bit more ground even if he doesn’t have to, just to secure his own position.”
Straw conceded the prospect of a Ferrari properly attacking a Red Bull in a race may be slim given Red Bull’s superiority so far in 2022.
As Mitchell wondered if Leclerc would take more risks with a championship deficit to close, Claire Cottingham – a special guest on this week’s podcast episode – thought he could still play the numbers game.
“I think Charles Leclerc is more of a [Valtteri] Bottas in terms of aggression,” she said.
“He’s changed his riding style dramatically this year, but is he on the same level of aggressiveness as someone like Hamilton or Verstappen? I do not think so.
“So maybe he’s thinking more in his head about points, especially with what’s going on with reliability, and in terms of the championship that has eluded him in the last few races.
“The number of points that Red Bull and Verstappen have accumulated because of these problems that Ferrari have had, he might think a little more savvy, that second place is better than fighting for a win.
“Probably not for a racing driver, but we could see something along those lines with Charles. He may be thinking about the long game, rather than fighting for a win every time.
Cottingham also pointed to a key difference this year in that Verstappen and Leclerc know there is a good chance they will still have tough title machines for at least the next two years to come.
By contrast, Hamilton and Verstappen have battled over the past year before a major rules revolution that threatened to upend the competitive order.
“Last year Verstappen might not know if Red Bull 2022 would be as competitive as last year,” Cottingham added.
“He might have thought it was one of his – not the last chance – but with Lewis he might have thought it might have been one of his last chances to win a championship because so much was changing. this season.
“While I think for Ferrari and Red Bull they’ve managed to do quite well apart from the reliability issues and from now on it’s about working on this new car and working for the next two years.” There is some respite for both parties.
Whether that breathing space is enough to prevent a flashpoint this weekend – or the rest of 2022 – remains to be seen, but despite the differences to the 2021 title fight, there’s still the potential for that. this year’s title fight gets a lot more fiery.