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Leclerc has lead, Verstappen momentum before Spanish GP

BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) – Charles Leclerc has the lead. Max Verstappen has the momentum.

The defending Formula One champion has chipped away at Leclerc’s advantage by stringing together consecutive victories, reducing the difference to 19 points ahead of Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix. The sixth event of the season promises to be yet another episode of the Red Bull vs Ferrari rivalry that has completely eclipsed Lewis Hamilton’s struggling Mercedes.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto has hinted that his engineers will use the two weeks between races to introduce important upgrades.

“It’s not a surprise that we may have a package in Barcelona, which will be important for us,” Binotto said. “I hope the package we are introducing is working as expected and in that case, it can be a good boost in order to try and catch up the current gap we’ve got to the Red Bull.”

Leclerc started the season with a victory in Bahrain, leading a 1-2 finish with Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz. After Verstappen levelled it with a win in Saudi Arabia, Leclerc breezed to a dominant performance in Australia and Ferrari had reason to finally believe it had returned to the top.

But back-to-back victories by Verstappen – with Red Bull humbling Ferrari in front of its home fans in Italy before adding a win in Miami – have more than halved the 46-point lead Leclerc had going into the Italian GP.

Verstappen trails Leclerc despite leading him in victories – with three to Leclerc’s two – because he failed to finish both in Bahrain and Australia because of car trouble. Leclerc, meanwhile, has finished runner-up two times, with his worst result being a sixth-place finish in Italy.

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc (above) and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. PHOTOS: AP

When Verstappen’s car has not failed him, he has managed to get the better of Leclerc, a rival of his since the days they drove go-karts as youngsters.

“There’s a long, long way to go, it’s so tight with Ferrari and there’s been some great racing. You can see there is a great respect between Charles and Max, they are enjoying racing each other and I think you can see that,” Red Bull team principle Christian Horner said last week.

“I was rather hoping we weren’t set for another competitive year like the last one, but it looks like this one could go all the way as well.”

The Barcelona race marked a milestone in Verstappen’s rise to glory. In 2016, with Verstappen still a teen, he won his very first grand prix to become F1’s youngest ever race winner.

Since then, it has been a race that Hamilton has devoured.

Hamilton, the man who ruled F1 for years before Verstappen snatched away his crown in dramatic fashion last year, has won the Spanish GP six times, including each of the last five years.

But given Mercedes’ embarrassing inability to even keep pace with Ferrari and Red Bull, Hamilton’s likely goal this weekend is just getting ahead of his upstart teammate. George Russell, 13 years Hamilton’s junior, has so far outperformed the seven-time champion with 59 points to Hamilton’s 36.

The 4.6-kilometre Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya track is well known to the drivers thanks to both the race and the winter preseason testing normally held at the venue.

In February’s tests, Ferrari had the fastest cars on the circuit.

The local fans will be hoping for good showings from both Sainz, who is fifth in the standings ahead of Hamilton, and Fernando Alonso.

The two-time former champion has struggled so far and only notched two points in his Alpine.