Leclerc and Verstappen went wheel-to-wheel between Turn 1 and Turn 4 for three laps running on lap 17, 18 and 19 as they diced it out under the lights for the first victory of the new campaign. 

Since arriving in F1, Verstappen has quickly earned a reputation for being one of the most aggressive drivers on the grid. It was that combative approach, combined with his remarkable raw speed, which helped him dethrone Lewis Hamilton on his way to winning his maiden world championship last year.

At the 2022 curtain raiser in Bahrain, the Red Bull driver lunged up the inside of Leclerc’s Ferrari three times into the first corner. 

Many had predicted fireworks between the two former karting rivals given the pair have had their fair share of run-ins in the past. This time the racing was clean, respectable and hugely entertaining as they swapped the lead five times. 

Leclerc seemed to have Verstappen covered throughout, with the Monegasque able to regain the lead on the run to Turn 4 on the two occasions Verstappen had pulled off a successful dive into Turn 1. 

On lap 19, Verstappen attempted a bold attack from even further back but suffered a big lock up that allowed Leclerc to immediately sweep back past around the outside of Turn 2 and maintain his lead. 

After the race, Leclerc said he was “trying to be clever” during the duel to ensure he always had the benefit of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) in order to counter Verstappen’s divebombs. 

An onboard video released by F1 provided an insight into Leclerc’s smart thinking. 

Leclerc deliberately stayed in seventh gear along the main straight and braked earlier into Turn 1 to sit just behind Verstappen. With a cleaner exit out of Turn 2 and Turn 3, he then shifted up to eighth with DRS activated on the shorter run to Turn 4. 

Both times he executed the cunning tactic to perfection. On lap 17, he overtook Verstappen around the outside at Turn 4, while on the following lap, he passed the Dutchman by grabbing the inside line. 

"With the first two overtakes, I knew he [Verstappen] was going to try something so I wasn't surprised," Leclerc explained.  

"I expected it and actually it was working for me, because I knew if he wasn’t overtaking me there [Turn 1], he would have overtaken me at Turn 4 with the DRS.

"So I was on purpose braking very early into Turn 1 in order to be just behind for the DRS detection and get it on the run to Turn 4 to get him back. So this always worked out.

"On one overtake, I was surprised - the one where he locked up - but it was not a problem for me. It's the type of racing that I like. 

"It was hard racing, as we have seen with Max in the past, but I also am an aggressive driver in the way I fight with others and I enjoy racing like this.”

From there, Leclerc managed to gap Verstappen and looked to have the race under control until a late Safety Car was deployed when Pierre Gasly’s fiery AlphaTauri pulled over at the side of Turn 3. 

Verstappen resorted to one of his favourite tricks at the restart on Lap 50 when he drew almost fully alongside Leclerc heading into the final corner in an attempt to hustle his rival. 

On this occasion, the move backfired because Verstappen had tightened up his line into the last corner and was unable to get the optimum run onto the main straight. Realising this, Leclerc bolted and disappeared into the distance. 

Leclerc kept his cool despite Verstappen’s games during a critical moment of the race, further underlying the impressive manner of arguably his most complete performance yet en route to a third career victory. 

“Looking at last year’s race, I think it is something that Max is doing quite often, to just be as close as possible and sometimes alongside the driver that is restarting,” Leclerc said of the restart. 

“I just tried to do the best restart possible and I knew in the position he was in at that moment, it was the right moment for me to do the restart and it worked out. So I’m happy because it was a very critical part of the race.”