SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) - Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are already hailed as future superstars of Formula One but Sunday’s battle of the 21-year-olds in Austria was the clearest glimpse yet of what might lie ahead.
Throw McLaren’s 19-year-old British rookie Lando Norris into the youthful mix as well and the sport looks set on a glittering course.
All three put in standout performances throughout the weekend at Spielberg to put more established drivers into the shade.
Ferrari’s Leclerc and Red Bull’s Verstappen thrilled the crowd with a wheel-banging, race-deciding battle in the closing laps.
They were the youngest top two finishers in F1 history and Verstappen, a six times race winner, had never before stepped up to the top step of the podium without having at least one champion on a lower rung.
Finland’s Valtteri Bottas, at 29 the old man on podium, finished third for Mercedes.
Leclerc’s three previous podium finishes, all third places, were with Bottas’s five times world champion team mate Lewis Hamilton taking the winner’s trophy. This was new territory for both youngsters.
Ferrari’s four times champion Sebastian Vettel, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, now with Alfa Romeo, and Hamilton had to settle for whatever points they could get in the Styrian sunshine.
The late collision between the Red Bull and Ferrari, ruled a racing incident by stewards, and their differing opinions over the fairness of it also injected an early bit of needle into the fledgling rivalry.
Hamilton, who made his debut as a 22-year-old but is now 34, welcomed the rise of the next generation.
“I’ll go and fight the young ‘uns, man!” he said after qualifying between pole-sitter Leclerc and third placed Verstappen, who moved up to the front row after the Briton was handed a grid penalty.
“It’s cool. I’m representing for the more grown men I guess.”
While Leclerc and Verstappen kept the fans, many thousands in Dutch orange, on the edge of their seats, Norris also impressed.
Starting fifth, he vaulted up to third at the start and passed Hamilton in a bold move around the outside at the first corner.
Driving a car that was no match for Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull’s challengers, he dropped back but not without giving Vettel, Verstappen and Raikkonen — the oldest driver on the grid — a fight.
Finishing an impressive sixth, his display in Austria came a week after a gritty drive into the points in a hydraulically hobbled McLaren that won him the “Driver of the Day” accolade at the French Grand Prix.
“I was sceptical at first. I thought ‘so young, can he cope with the pressure?’,” Britain’s 1996 world champion and Sky Sports television pundit Damon Hill said of Norris’s season so far.
“Not a hint of it ... he stayed out of trouble, as he said he wanted to do, and he got the result.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin and Alison Williams