MELBOURNE — Max Verstappen has enjoyed going wheel-to-wheel with his childhood rival, Monaco’s Charles Leclerc, in the opening two races of the Formula 1 season.
“It’s been really good, I enjoy the battles,” the Dutchman told The Post on Thursday ahead of the Australian Grand Prix.
Verstappen and Leclerc, both 24, began racing against one another in karts when they were 12 years old. Fast-forward to 2022, and both the Red Bulls ace and Ferrari driver each has a win apiece. Meanwhile, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton campaigns for a Mercedes team lacking the pace to compete for victories.
“We have both [grown] as drivers and we are both representing two big brands,” Verstappen said of his and Leclerc’s similar trajectories to the upper echelon of motorsport.
“But I think we definitely race better now than what we did before,” he said with a laugh of their youth battles. “Back in the day we both wanted to become Formula 1 drivers, and now we are both fighting at the very front of Formula 1.”
With Leclerc leading the championship by 12 points heading into the third race of the season, Verstappen insisted the “pressure is off” this year after he defeated Hamilton, 37, in December in what was a career-defining, first world championship.
“I’m just myself, and I’m just enjoying what I’m doing at the moment. The pressure is off anyway,” Verstappen said.
“It still means a lot to me when I win races, like when I won at Saudi, but it’s a different feeling leading up to the [race] weekend.”
The historically Europe-centric sport has experienced rapid growth in the United States market over the past few years: viewership was up 54 percent last year, and the 2022 season opener in Bahrain lured more than one million viewers.
F1 owners Liberty Media have reacted to the sport’s surge in popularity — which could be attributed, in part, to the Netflix series “Drive To Survive” — by adding races to the North American slate.
A second US race in Miami has been added to the 2022 calendar, with a third set to take place on the Las Vegas strip for 2023. F1 has been racing in Austin, Texas since 2012.
Though Verstappen said he was hoping for some “good racing” when F1 heads to Sin City, he’s wary of the sport ditching historic tracks in favor of street circuits.
“I think it’s really cool that we’ll be driving on the strip [but] at the end of the day they are also trying to create a bit of a show,” he said of the upcoming race, which will take place on a Saturday night.
“I think we still need to go to the old school tracks and actually drive F1 cars where they belong. Especially with the  cars … they’re so low, they’re just not made for [street circuits].”
The 2022 Australian Grand Prix takes place here on Sunday, April 10.