Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was so far ahead last season that catching the Formula One champion may feel like scaling a mountain.
So that’s exactly what Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc did to get himself ready for the challenge, which starts next Sunday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The 25-year-old from Monaco headed up to the Italian Dolomites for some “extreme training” that left him “fully recharged and ready for” another crack at Verstappen, his former junior karting rival.
Lewis Hamilton has long been a perfectionist when it comes to physical fitness. But this time the Mercedes veteran tried something new: a week in Antarctica whale-spotting.
“Winter was great, amazing, (the) highlight was Antarctica seeing the whales,” the 38-year-old said. “Definitely, if anyone has an opportunity to go, pack warm. But otherwise (it’s) pretty spectacular.”
Whether this makes any difference when it comes to stopping Verstappen remains to be seen, and if pre-season testing is anything to go by, it might not.
Verstappen thinks his RB19 may be even better than last year.
“Overall I think it’s definitely an improvement to last year,” he said during testing. “Very positive days for me.”
Ferrari will hope things improve under new leadership.
Frenchman Frédéric Vasseur replaced team principal, Italian Mattia Binotto, whose relationship with Leclerc had become increasingly tense.
Leclerc opened 2022 with two wins in three races and seemed poised to challenge Verstappen. But he finished nearly 150 points adrift, without a win since July and just finished second overall.
“What to expect from Fred? It’s very early days, but what I can say is that it was impressive how quickly he (blended) into the team,” said Leclerc, who worked with Vasseur at Sauber. “Straight away he felt quite at ease and understood a team like Ferrari.”
Without criticizing Binotto, he alluded to the need for change.
“He’s really, really good at putting everybody in the right conditions in order to extract the best out of people,” the 25-year-old Leclerc said. “I think this is going to be a big plus.”
Hamilton’s relationship with Mercedes remains strong as he negotiates a new contract and with team principal Toto Wolff pledging to give him a winning car.
Hamilton is F1’s record-holder with 103 wins, but didn’t win a race last year and now must also beat teammate George Russell.
Russell surprised many observers in his first season with Mercedes by finishing ahead of Hamilton in the standings. Russell was fourth, compared to sixth for Hamilton, and won the team’s only race.
“Every point of my career, I’ve always gone in believing,” Russell said.
Asked about his rivals, Verstappen was very brief.
“It’s more important we focus on ourselves,” said Verstappen, who has won a record 15 races last year to take his career tally to 35.
The 25-year-old Dutchman is already sixth all time for wins. The late F1 great Ayrton Senna is fifth with 41 wins and well within reach this season.
Red Bull will start sleeker and lighter than last year and, Verstappen hopes, with no reliability problems.
“The main issue we had last year was the car was massively overweight, so at the beginning the car was very lazy and wasn’t turning in,” Verstappen said. “This year it’s just a continuation, but also things we found and put on the car that were clearly better.”
Last year became plain-sailing for Verstappen until some tension crept in near the end. Teammate Sergio Perez was unhappy that Verstappen didn’t let him through in Brazil when Perez was fighting with Leclerc for second place in the championship.
Motorsport’s governing body FIA in December updated its International Sporting Code to require prior written permission for drivers to make or display “political, religious and personal statements or comments” during race weekends.
The crackdown on free speech was condemned by most drivers. It led to F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali saying drivers won’t be gagged and prompted FIA to backtrack somewhat by saying drivers are free to express themselves outside of competition on their own platforms or in media interviews, and when directly asked questions in news conferences.
But FIA insists the sport must remain neutral, and potential sanctions range from fines, a grid drop, time penalty or — worst-case scenario — suspension.
Hamilton is confident Mercedes and F1 won’t let him and other drivers down.
“I know the team is in constant communication with the FIA and it’s been really positive to see Stefano (Domenicali) and Formula One stepping up and supporting us,” said Hamilton, the only Black driver in F1.
NEW AND OLD
Fernando Alonso is still confident in his ability to win a third world title even though he’s 41 years old. He joined Aston Martin after an acrimonious split with Alpine and the Spaniard likes what he’s seen so far.
“At Aston Martin for sure there is this energy and trying to become a contender for the future,” he said. “New factory coming together will be ready, new wind tunnel, a lot of investment. They look pretty good.”
The 21-year-old Australian Oscar Piastri (McLaren), 22-year-old American Logan Sargeant and Nyck De Vries (AlphaTauri) are the new faces.
De Vries raced once last season and impressed with ninth place at the Italian Grand Prix when he stepped in for Alex Albon when he had appendicitis.
“I’m getting the opportunity to live my dream,” the 28-year-old De Vries said.
F2 champion Felipe Drugovich could replace Lance Stroll for Aston Martin in Bahrain if Stroll fails to recover from a wrist injury sustained in a bicycle accident.
There’s also a rumor that Aston Martin could recall Sebastian Vettel as a one-off. The four-time F1 champion retired last season.
Alonso and Vettel — former title rivals in the same team — would add spice, even for only one race.
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