Some robust defending from Verstappen at the start of Saturday’s sprint race saw him maintain the lead from Leclerc, who lost momentum and then came under attack from teammate Sainz. 

An intense battle between the Ferrari pair over second place in the early laps gave Verstappen crucial breathing space to pull clear out front and enabled the Red Bull driver to manage the gap. 

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By the time Leclerc had covered off Sainz, Verstappen was nearly three seconds up the road and well on his way to claiming a comfortable victory and secure pole position for Sunday’s main race. 

While Leclerc was unsure if he would have been able to challenge Verstappen for the win without the fight with Sainz, he urged Ferrari to avoid a repeat in the grand prix. 

"I think tomorrow is going to be a long race and tyre management is going to be quite a bit more important compared to today,” said Leclerc. 

"So probably tomorrow we cannot afford to do what we did today, no.” 

Asked how much time he lost while battling Sainz, Leclerc replied: “A little bit. 

“Whether this was enough to get the win, I don’t think so because Max was also managing the gap. We will never know what would have happened.” 

Sainz described his battle with Leclerc as “good fun” and felt there was little to gain or lose for Ferrari as a result. 

“There was very little to gain or to lose by the fight,” said the Spaniard. “We are talking about one point more, one point less because with the sprint, there are not many points. 

“Also, Max looked very in control the whole race up front, so it’s not like we lost out massively.” 

However, Verstappen, who has now extended lead over Leclerc to 44 points, acknowledged that Ferrari’s intra-team battle helped him to pull a decisive gap early on. 

“They had a little fight in the beginning of the race so that I could pull a gap and then control the gap,” said the Dutchman.

“But you could see towards the end of the race, we were very closely matched in pace. So I do expect tomorrow to be a tight race.”

Will Ferrari resort to ‘rules of engagement’?

Speaking before the sprint, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto stressed that his side will continue to prioritise the “fastest car on track” for the time being, rather than the driver who is ahead in the championship. 

“I'm pretty happy to see those two drivers fighting,” he explained. 

“I know that when there are team orders, everybody's blaming us because we should have a free fight and when we got the free fight, then you should have team orders, so whatever you're doing is always wrong. 

“And I remember 20 years ago here in Austria, I have heard the booing from the grandstands [when Ferrari instructed Rubens Barrichello to give up a win for Michael Schumacher on the last lap of the race in 2002] because I was here. 

“So, again, I think it's always delicate and each single person after the race knows how we should deal with the situations. But once again, what we are trying to do is maximise the team points, which I'm pretty sure is the right choice.”

Asked if there is a need for rules of engagement to be implemented on Sunday, Sainz replied: “Mattia will decide and the team. 

“It’s not like we lost a lot and it looked like Max wasn’t panicking too much up front with our pace. 

“We need to stay closer at the beginning of the stint and be closer at the end of the stint. This is what we need to try and do tomorrow.”

Leclerc added: “We’ve lost a little bit of time but then again when Max got the gap he managed his pace, so we will never know. 

“I felt like we were strong towards the end, probably stronger than the beginning, whether it would have been enough, I don’t know.”