Red Bull Racing driver and reigning Formula One World Drivers' Champion Max Verstappen admits he is enjoying his tussle with Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc this season more than the controversial battle with Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in 2021.
Verstappen currently holds a 63-point lead in the drivers' championship over second-placed Leclerc, while Hamilton is over 100 points back in sixth.
Last season's title battle was tinged with bad feeling on both sides and threatened to boil over more than once.
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For Verstappen, this year's edition is cleaner and more enjoyable, "I prefer what we have now because, first of all, Charles I know very well, he's a nice guy, we are a similar age - I think we are only three weeks apart. I think also we are fighting a very well-respected competitor in terms of Ferrari. The way they go about the way we are fighting… when they win a race we can go to them and say well done, and when we win a race they can say well done, and I really respect that"
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The development of a personal relationship goes beyond the two drivers, with both teams also sharing positive feelings.
"On Saturday night, we even had a laugh in Paul Ricard, and I think that's great because that's what racing should be about. We are hard competitors on the track and we will always try to beat each other, which I think is very normal, but outside of it you can have a good time as well, and that's what I really enjoy about this year. Let's say it like this, I would not be on a table on Saturday night having a laugh with (Mercedes). Just the click we have at the moment with the team, and I have a lot of respect for Ferrari in general."
The implications of Verstappen's quotes are evident and point to a far more pleasant relationship between this season's major contenders.
Leclerc was in a strong position in the French Grand Prix last week, but a disastrous error led to a crash and the Monegasque did not finish the race. With three DNFs in the last seven Grands Prix, Leclerc has seen an initially healthy lead over Verstappen dry up.
Two of those failures to finish were engine trouble that can't be blamed on Leclerc, his failures in Italy and France were down to driver error.
While Leclerc admitted that his mistake at the French GP was "unforgivable", he also refused any suggestion that he should drive less aggressively. "No, I think that's what gave me the edge in most of the races this year."
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Despite his recent struggles for points, Leclerc has not yet given up on claiming what would be a maiden title, he knows he faces an uphill struggle.
"Maybe people will think I'm crazy, but when I see the statistics, I know that if I win every race and Max comes second without driving the fastest lap every time, I've seen it on Twitter, we can still win the championship. So now I just have to win all the remaining races. It won't be easy, but that's the spirit we have to have. Otherwise I can stay at home. What motivates me in F1 is winning, so I will believe in it until the end."
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