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Driving Around In Circles: The Here And Now

Illustration by Minnie Leaver

It’s the British Grand Prix and Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen are engrossed in a ferocious scrap for supremacy. Leclerc is ahead but Verstappen is omnipresent in his wing mirrors, almost glued to the red car in front, sometimes with mere centimetres separating the two.

Out of turn four, Verstappen profits from better traction to pull alongside Leclerc, but Leclerc uses the inside line to needle Verstappen off the road.

A few laps later, they both pit, and thanks to the speedy work of the Red Bull mechanics, Verstappen gains some time. They trundle along the pit line literally side-by-side, a brief respite before their battle can resume.

But into the next braking zone, Verstappen goes wide, and Leclerc slivers back into the lead! “You can sense the frustration in the Dutchman,” notes David Croft, one of the TV commentators.

On one of the longer straights, Verstappen edges closer and closer to Leclerc. He pulls out to overtake – so Leclerc jinks to block him. They’re both running out of room on the right-hand side. Many drivers would back off and try again later but Verstappen is not intimidated. He audaciously keeps going and gets ahead. Job done, finally…

At least until Leclerc seizes the initiative, moves back to the other side of the track so he can get a quicker, sweeping entry into the corner, thus regaining the position.

I could watch their battle, which continues for the rest of the race, over and over. It represents the very best of the new breed of young drivers, who are changing what it means to be respectful on track. In the past, that tended to mean being firm but always on the right side of the line. For these guys, it means pushing your opponent, and the rules, to the limit – sometimes beyond – but with the grudging accord that they will do the same.

Remarkably, this particular battle, so high on intensity and talent, was not for the lead. The drivers ended up finishing third and fifth. Excitingly, this year, they are the two championship protagonists.

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Leclerc had a dream start to this season. He scored victory in Bahrain while Verstappen was denied second place by a late engine blowout. In Saudi Arabia, Verstappen struck back – but only half a second separated the pair over the finish line. Again, in Australia, Leclerc was dominant while Verstappen retired with yet more technical issues. People started joking that the number 1 plastered on Verstappen’s car represented the number of races he had finished (instead of him being the reigning world champion). Leclerc had amassed an incredibly comfortable lead.

It’s a lead that Leclerc can now only reminisce about. Red Bull had a pace advantage over Ferrari in Italy and the US. Ferrari did not help themselves with poor strategies in Monaco and Britain, and neither did Leclerc with a needless, overzealous scrape with the barriers in Italy. In Spain and Azerbaijan, Leclerc retired from the lead because his car gave up on him. In Canada, he was forced to start the race from last position, because of replacing several of the engine components that could no longer be used.

Ferrari does seem to have the pace – Leclerc in particular has delivered some sensational laps in qualifying – but Verstappen and Red Bull both currently have a firm grasp on the championship trophy.

Notably missing from the title fight is Mercedes. Having won all eight of the last team championships, and seven of the last eight drivers’ championships, they find themselves in no man’s land. Lewis Hamilton has particularly struggled – some weekends he has been downright slow. In Saudi Arabia, when he finished tenth, he had to ask his engineer on the radio: “is there even a point for that position?”. His new, young teammate, George Russell, has quietly finished each race bar one this season in the top five, and equalled the record for the most consecutive races that a teammate has beaten Hamilton: seven times.

There are interesting stories elsewhere on the grid too. In the second Red Bull, Sergio Perez is finding his stride, being fastest in qualifying for the first time in Saudi Arabia and winning the race in Monaco. What will Red Bull do if he continues to pose a serious threat to his teammate? The same question goes for Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari, who has  rejuvenated his season in the past few races. Further down the grid is Daniel Ricciardo in the McLaren, who was once one of the most dynamic and opportunistic drivers in the sport, but now fares so regularly poorly compared to his fledgling teammate, Lando Norris, that it’s barely newsworthy. And Aston Martin’s continued mediocrity shows that financial clout is insufficient for success in the sport.

More generally, I think the sport is in its best shape in years. There are genuine and exciting rivalries at the front: last year between Hamilton and Verstappen, this year between Verstappen and Leclerc. Other excellent drivers like Norris and Russell are already ready to flourish when they get good machinery. New rules have made the racing more exciting and the cost cap is making the competition fairer. The sport is increasingly popular, thanks to the Netflix documentary ‘Drive To Survive’, two new races in America, and its first Chinese driver. It has a good environmental plan. And as a result of all that, big, quality teams are looking to join, namely Audi, Porsche, and Andretti.

True, they just drive around in circles for a few hours every Sunday. But over the last few months, I hope I’ve shown that it’s so much more than that too. Thanks for reading.