The second race of the season showed it once again impressively: The duel between world champion Max Verstappen (24) and Charles Leclerc (24) could shape this Formula 1 season.

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc hardly knew what to do with their excess of adrenaline and euphoria. Pumped up by the thrilling final-lap thriller in Jeddah, the new Formula 1 world championship duelists immediately arranged for the next duels. “Every race should be like this,” said world championship leader Leclerc, although he had raced to the finish in Saudi Arabia in second place behind the world champion. But the minimal gap of 0.5 seconds and the strength of his Ferrari showed the Monegasque and the rest of the world that this rivalry could shape the season.

Even in their karting days, the two fought contested duels

Red Bull star Verstappen described the gripping exchange with Leclerc as “cool and really tough”, in which they pushed the limits with all their tactical tricks. However, neither wanted to know anything about a poisonous duel, as the Dutchman had had with Lewis Hamilton at the same place just four months earlier. “We have a lot of respect for each other, that’s important, that’s why we have these good fights,” Verstappen said.

Leclerc promptly felt reminded of shared karting days in their youth. “We had great duels there as well. We grew up together, that helped us to develop in our own way,” said the 24-year-old. The duo’s lap-long battle had already electrified fans at the Bahrain opener before the world champion was stopped by a technical defect.

The “new royal duel

Now Leclerc and Verstappen seem to be turning wheel-to-wheel tussles into a dramatic series. “I wouldn’t have believed after last year that there would be an increase – and now we have,” Red Bull motorsport boss Helmut Marko exulted on TV channel “Sky”. “Formula 1 has a new royal duel,” the Swiss “Blick” headlined full of anticipation.

Leclerc will take a 20-point lead over Verstappen into the third race of the season in Australia in a fortnight. Team-mate Carlos Sainz is still between them in second place. “Of course I’m pretty happy with the start, but there’s definitely more to come,” Leclerc said. Ferrari has broken out of its two-year slump in form and made perfect use of the rule reform with all-new cars.

But can the Scuderia match the pace of Red Bull and Verstappen over the long haul? In 2017 and 2018, the Italians also already had the strongest car with Sebastian Vettel, before Mercedes gained the upper hand in the race of the engineers. “We have improved our tools since then and we are much better prepared,” assured Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto. “That will be the key, we have to give everything,” Leclerc warned.

Hamilton, 13 years older, currently plays no role in title race

The world championship leader also spoke from the heart of a man who is suddenly threatening to become a marginal figure after eight heady years. Record world champion Lewis Hamilton has been left behind by Mercedes for the time being. Hopes of title number eight could be dashed early on. “Wins feel very far away,” lamented the 37-year-old after his run to an unfortunate tenth place in Jeddah.

Mercedes currently had “deficits everywhere”, admitted team boss Toto Wolff. “But the season is still incredibly long,” the Austrian added combatively.