Sergio Perez is adamant Red Bull will not steer him away from a battle with Max Verstappen for the Formula One title.

Red Bull have dominated the opening two rounds of the season, securing one-two finishes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with Verstappen holding a narrow one-point lead over his team-mate courtesy of the fastest lap in Jeddah.

Verstappen's push for the extra championship point last time out saw sparks flying at Red Bull, with Perez unhappy he was not given a similar message over team radio and ultimately not making a bid himself to set the fastest time.

Suggestions that tempers are flaring in the paddock have been downplayed, however, and Mexican driver Perez feels he has support within the team to launch his own bid for the title.

The season continues this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

"When I first came to the team [ahead of the 2021 season], things were very different.  Basically, they were just going racing with two cars because they had to," Perez said, quoted by BBC Sport.

"I can now say that I really feel part of the team, have my place and am well respected.

"I really believe I have the team's full support, as much as Max does, and that I will have every opportunity to win the championship, as much as Max."

While going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen could lead to tensions over the course of the season, Perez feels the pair have the maturity to deal with any rivalry that could emerge on track.

"I'm here to do the best possible thing for myself as well. To be honest, we have a lot more respect for each other than people might think," Perez said.

"Inside the team, there is a very high level of respect with each other. I think we are both mature enough to know what's right and what's wrong and, as long as that keeps being the case, I don't expect anything to change."

Max Verstappen revelled in his impressive recovery at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix while Christian Horner lavished Sergio Perez's "best ever race".

Perez claimed a fifth race win of his Formula One career on Sunday, bouncing back after briefly losing the lead to Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso early on.

Red Bull team-mate Verstappen had plenty of work to do – starting in 15th after dropping out in Q2 on Saturday due to a mechanical failure – but he charged through the field to make the podium.

Verstappen, who reported an issue with his car with around 12 laps remaining, also retained his place at the top of the drivers' standings by recording the race's fastest lap right at the death, leaving the two-time reigning champion to reflect on a satisfying outing. 

"It wasn't very easy to get through the field, through the first sector it was very difficult – a lot of sliding around," Verstappen told Sky Sports.

"Once I cleared them one by one, we got into a good rhythm, and of course I'm very happy to be here on the podium.

"I was second and we had a big gap behind us, so at one point we decided to call it a day and settle for second, which I think was a great recovery anyway so I'm happy with that."

While Verstappen battled his way through the grid, Perez held firm to ensure Red Bull became the first team to win both races and both qualifying sessions in the first two contests of an F1 season.

Perez added: "It turned out to be tougher than I expected. We really did a good job in the first stint, that safety car tried to take it away from us. 

"I was after the victory last year and finally I got it. The team did a fantastic job, they worked so hard during the week, we had a lot of mechanical issues, so I'm really happy for them.

"We will keep pushing hard. The important thing is we were the fastest car out there today. We're very pleased with that."

Horner rated Perez's display as his best in F1, telling Sky Sports: "The team – all credit to them – have built an incredible car.

"We've got a great car and two great drivers. What we saw today [was] two drivers pushing each other. Max coming through from 15th on the grid… by half distance, he was already in P4!

"Checo, I think that was his best ever race, managing the pace and the restart... those guys were going absolutely flat out.

"They were both pushing hard and Max got the fastest lap of the race, but what a weekend for him. He was patient, he picked the cars off, it was a phenomenal recovery from him."

Sergio Perez claimed glory in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as Max Verstappen charged through the field to maintain his lead in the Formula One championship.

Polesitter Perez initially fell behind to Fernando Alonso at the start of Sunday's race in Jeddah, yet the latter was handed a five-second penalty for an incorrect starting position on the grid.

Perez did not relinquish the lead again, holding firm to seal his fifth F1 win, and his second in the space of seven races following his success in Singapore last season.

Red Bull team-mate Verstappen, starting 15th, had work to do after dropping out in Q2 on Saturday, though the two-time reigning champion displayed his supreme skill – and the power of his engine – to charge up to second.

He had overtaken long-time rival Lewis Hamilton for P8 by the 12th lap, and after Lance Stroll was told to stop on the track, bringing out a safety car, Verstappen was attempting to overtake George Russell's Mercedes.

Russell held him off once but could not do so again, with Verstappen cruising beyond Alonso to take hold of second in the 25th lap.

Verstappen, who had his rear suspension and both driveshafts changed prior to the race, was troubled by what he called a "weird noise" with 12 laps remaining, though Red Bull's engineers instructed the Dutchman to stay out.

That did not seem to ease Verstappen's fears, though he pushed his car as far as it would go in the final lap, and that decision paid off as he claimed the fastest time in the race, keeping himself at the top of the standings after two races.

Alonso fended off Mercedes duo Russell and Hamilton to round out the podium – the Spaniard's 100th of his F1 career.

After failing to finish in 2022, Alex Albon suffered another disappointing race in Jeddah as a brake issue forced him to retire.

Charles Leclerc endured a frustrating grand prix and had to settle for seventh, behind Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz.

Fernando Alonso will occupy the front row of the grid for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix but is not harbouring dreams of a first victory since the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix.

Alonso and Aston Martin continued their strong start to the season as the Spaniard qualified third in Jeddah behind Red Bull's Sergio Perez and the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc after defending world champion Max Verstappen failed to make it out of Q2 because of a driveshaft issue.

Leclerc's 10-place grid penalty will see him start 12th, promoting Alonso to his first front row start since last season's Canadian Grand Prix for Alpine.

Alonso endured a disappointing race on that occasion, finishing ninth.

Though Alonso is confident of greater fortune in the Aston Martin on Sunday, the two-time world champion does not believe he can challenge Perez for victory and anticipates eventually being caught by Verstappen, who will start 15th.

"I don't know. I think we are not in that position yet," the 41-year-old said when asked if he felt he could beat Perez. "I think on pure pace, I think Red Bull is in another league. And I think we have to concentrate more on the teams behind.

"So Ferrari will be very strong. Mercedes, they are strong, and also Alpine, they are fast here. So I think our race is just behind us. We saw today, Max probably was in his league today in qualifying and he could not complete the qualifying with a mechanical issue apparently, so we will try to take the opportunity for sure.

"I don't want to sound pessimistic but if we see the pace the whole weekend in free practice, we see the Bahrain race, we have to be honest with ourselves and know that Red Bull is a little bit ahead of everyone. So that's not, let's say, the target tomorrow, you know, to fight for the win with Checo.

"But as I said before, Formula One is not exact mathematics, you know, anything can happen and today no one of us will put Verstappen P15, but these things happen sometimes.

"So, for us, the most important thing is to score points. We are starting both cars in the top five. We try to finish both cars in the top five and keep accumulating points for the constructors' championship. That's the main goal for Aston Martin this year.

"I think Max will come eventually in the race. They have this advantage. I don't know which race it was last year that he started last, so he changed the power unit and still finished P2 or even won the race. So, I think tomorrow, there is no doubt that he will be in the podium, probably, minimum."

Verstappen won from 10th in Hungary last season and 14th in Belgium, results that underlined his dominance once Leclerc's title challenge dissipated, and he is not giving up hope of another charge through the field even at a tight circuit where overtaking may prove difficult.

"We now have a bit more work ahead of us tomorrow, but it is what it is," said Verstappen. 

"It is a long championship and we will stay positive. I think a win is tricky from that position but I will try to score as many points as possible. It will be hard to get to the front, but we won't give up.

"Anything is possible at this track, we have seen some crazy things here, but we have to be realistic. It will be tough but we have good pace so, for sure, we will move forward."

Max Verstappen's early dominance of the Formula One season was interrupted as he was knocked out of qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with a mechanical issue.

The reigning world champion was the class of the field two weeks ago in Bahrain, with Red Bull enjoying a significant advantage in pace over their rivals.

But Verstappen will need to work his way through the field at the tight street circuit in Jeddah if he is to prevail at this race for the second successive year.

The Dutchman limped to the pits in the second qualifying session with what appeared to be a driveshaft issue.

His mechanics did not have the requisite time to fix the problem and get him back out for a flying lap, meaning Verstappen will start 15th, unless Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who has a 10-place grid penalty, qualifies no higher than fifth.

There had been no prior indication of a problem in that area of the car, according to Verstappen, who accepts it will now be difficult for him to replicate his 2022 victory.

"No, it's the first time I heard about it [the problem] as well," he said. "Coming out of turn 10 it happened. It will be a bit more tricky to get to the front. Anything is possible at this track, it's going to be tough."

Max Verstappen will arrive late to Saudi Arabia due to illness and missed pre-weekend media duties on Thursday.

The back-to-back Formula One world champion took to social media to confirm he had been battling a stomach bug and will not arrive in Jeddah until Friday.

"Feeling fine again, after not being fit for a few days because of a stomach bug," he wrote on Twitter.

"Therefore, I unfortunately had to postpone my flight for a day, so I won't be on the track until Friday. See you in Jeddah!"

Red Bull later issued a statement confirming that the FIA granted permission for the Dutchman to miss Thursday's pre-race media duties.

Verstappen tops the early championship standings after victory in the opening race of the season in Bahrain last time out, finishing ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez.

Charles Leclerc will receive a 10-place grid penalty at this weekend's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after Ferrari fitted a third electronics control unit. 

At the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Ferrari needed to use a second ECU before Leclerc retired from the race after suffering another problem with the component.

Across a season, drivers are restricted to using just two ECUs and going over the permitted amount results in a grid penalty.

Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur said: "On Sunday, we had two different issues. The first one was on the Sunday morning, when we did the fire up, and the second one was in the race.

"Unfortunately, it was two times the control electronics box and it’s something that we never experienced in the past.

"I hope now it’s under control. We have a deep analysis on this.

"Unfortunately, we’ll have to take the penalty in Jeddah because we have only a pool of two control units for the season."

Leclerc was a dejected figure in Bahrain, where championship favourites Red Bull claimed a dominant one-two with winner Max Verstappen coming in a huge 39 seconds ahead of third-placed Fernando Alonso.

The Ferrari driver, who was third at time of his retirement, described Red Bull as being "on another planet" but Vasseur has no worries about Leclerc's mindset or his team's chances this season. 

"It’s obvious Charles is motivated," added Vasseur, who is in his debut year as Ferrari boss.

"We have done one race of 23. He’s full push with the team, trying to get the best for everyone.

"The penalty is not good news, but it’s not the end of the season. Let’s see what happens in Jeddah, and what could be the outcome, even with the penalty.

"But don't imagine for even half a second he could be demotivated.

"He's fully convinced, he's working with us, pushing the team, pushing everybody in a positive way and nothing else."

If Ferrari need to replace any further parts of Leclerc's car in Saudi Arabia, the grid penalty will increase further than 10 grid spots.

Max Verstappen believes Fernando Alonso can end his decade-long wait for a Formula One win this season after an encouraging start for Aston Martin.

The Spaniard finished third in his first race for his new team at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday, which Verstappen won ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

Alonso signed a multi-year deal to replace Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin, making the move from Alpine.

The 41-year-old, who took a two-year sabbatical from F1 before returning in 2021, has not taken the top step of the podium since his victory at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix on home soil.

But reigning champion Verstappen thinks Alonso can add to his tally of 32 wins this year.

The Dutchman said: "I hope so for Fernando as well because he has had a few years where there was not really a possibility to fight at the front, so I'm happy to see him sitting here already in race one.

"I think also again, I mentioned it before, but at Aston Martin, they really have the spirit and drive, they want to win and they've hired a lot of good people.

"So I guess it can only get better for them. And I think for this year, difficult to say if they're going to challenge for the championship, but race wins are definitely on the table.

"I've been in the same position where some races I'm finishing 20 to 40 seconds behind the winners and you still win two or three races a year because sometimes there are some tracks which really suit your car and everything just comes together and you can win a race with maybe sometimes a bit of help or luck.

"But for sure they have a really strong package. And now of course it's all about developing it further."

Max Verstappen was delighted to break his Bahrain Grand Prix hoodoo, but Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez is promising a tight Formula One title race in 2023.

The reigning world champion picked up his first career victory at the Bahrain International Circuit to kick off the new season where he left off last term.

Verstappen led a one-two ahead of teammate Perez, while Fernando Alonso came third on his Aston Martin debut.

Having failed to win on any of his previous visits to Bahrain with the team, the Dutchman acknowledged he was gratified to finally claim a win at the circuit.

"I was very happy to finally win here in Bahrain," he said in his post-race interview. "It was a very good first stint. From there, it was about looking after the tyres.

"[There are] just little things we want to fine-tune. I think we have a good race package. I think it will depend race-to-race, [but] we can definitely fight with this."

Perez, who was aided in securing second by the late retirement of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc to an engine issue, feels he can press his team-mate this year though.

After finishing third in the standings last term, the Mexican is looking to ensure he can stay on the heels of the Dutchman as the latter eyes a third consecutive crown.

"We worked really hard over the winter, so it is nice to see all the boys enjoying the first race," he added. "It was important today to get both cars to the end.

"Finishing second was the maximum I could do today [with my start]. It is a long season. I think I am getting closer every single session and I will give my best."

Alonso, who departed Alpine for Aston Martin during the off-season, nabbed his first podium finish since he came third at the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix.

For the Spaniard, the oldest driver in the field at 41, it marked a vindication of his decision to make the move as he continues to defy expectations.

"[It is] amazing for the team, [it] was [a] great weekend," he added. "Finishing on the podium in the first race of the year, it is just amazing.

"What Aston Martin did over the winter to have the second-best car on race one, it's unreal."

Max Verstappen started the defence of his Formula One title with a comfortable victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The two-time world champion was in front from the start and never truly came under threat, leading a Red Bull one-two ahead of Sergio Perez to secure his team's first opening-weekend victory since 2011.

With Charles Leclerc forced into a retirement due to an engine issue, Red Bull's closest challenger was Fernando Alonso, who worked his way through the field for a podium finish.

But a rejuvenated Aston Martin were no match for a dominant Verstappen and Red Bull in what proved to be a comfortable race for the defending champions.

Leclerc, who had a power unit change before the start, leapfrogged Perez to take second place at the start but could not stay ahead of the Mexican, who regained his grid position after the first round of pit stops on lap 26.

Mercedes' fight with Aston Martin was the battle to watch, Lewis Hamilton completing an undercut on Alonso before a stellar move on lap 38 saw the Spaniard move ahead again.

Engine problems for Leclerc led to his retirement three laps later, opening the door for Alonso to battle Carlos Sainz for a podium spot after the virtual safety car was deployed.

Alonso was able to catch his compatriot on lap 46 to clinch third spot in his first race for Aston Martin, though there was no challenge for Red Bull as they eased to only their second ever win in the first race of the year.

Ferrari frustration

Having had to retire from the lead twice in the 2022 season due to engine issues, Leclerc would have hoped those problems were a thing of the past heading into Ferrari's 2023 campaign.

Never appearing to have the pace to put the Red Bull duo under threat, calamity struck with another forced retirement in a nightmare start to the season.

Ocon's Alpine agony

Esteban Ocon's season did not get off to a good start, with the Frenchman given three time penalties over the course of the race.

An initial five-second penalty came for incorrect grid position, with a 10-second penalty following for failing to serve that correctly and another five-second penalty issued for speeding in the pit lane before the Alpine was eventually retired.

 

IN THE POINTS

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +11.987

3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +36.637

4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +48.052

5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +50.977

6. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +54.502

7. George Russell (Mercedes) +55.873

8. Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +1:12.647

9. Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +1:13.753

10. Alexander Albon (Williams) +1:20.870

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 25

2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 18

3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) 15

4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) 12

5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 10

Constructors

1. Red Bull 43

2. Aston Martin 23

3. Mercedes 16

4. Ferrari 12

5. Alfa Romeo 4

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen surprised himself by claiming pole position in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen, on the hunt for a third straight world title, will start at the front of the grid in Sunday's season-opening race after recording a quickest lap of 1:29:708 on Saturday.

Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez qualified in second to complete the front row, with the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz behind them on the second row.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton had to settle for seventh behind Mercedes team-mate George Russell, with Fernando Alonso wedged in fifth.

Ferrari had topped the opening two qualifying sessions but with Verstappen coming good in Q3, they elected against heading out again, instead choosing to conserve their tyres.

"It has been a bit of a tough start to the weekend yesterday and today not really finding my rhythm, but luckily in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together," Verstappen said.

"I am very happy to be on pole. For the whole team coming off last year and again having such a strong car with Checo up there as well. It is amazing and I am looking forward to tomorrow. 

"The changes slowed down the car a bit but we are still going faster, which is great to see. Throughout the year, you will see everyone increasing their performance again a lot and that is the beautiful thing about Formula One.

"I was actually positively surprised to be on pole after the struggles I had in practice. Normally our race car is better, so let's see."

Despite having plenty of work to do to compete for a podium finish, Hamilton was in a buoyant mood.

"We went in with a really open mind," he told Sky Sports. "I woke up thinking we were going to be a lot further behind, and so the fact we're even getting into Q3 was great.

"We made a step forward today and the car was feeling much more alive this morning, and all of a sudden we were in a different place to where we were the day before. But then we got to qualifying and for me the car just didn't feel alive, it felt kind of average.

"It's not an impossible mountain to climb, so that's a positive, and I know everyone back at the factory has been working so hard. We can definitely close the gap, we've just got really focus and push like never before."

Leclerc, meanwhile, was happy with Ferrari's strategy despite believing he had the chance to fight for pole.

"There wasn't any issue. I think we were in the fight for pole, which was a good surprise to be honest because I did not expect that after testing and after free practices that were a little bit difficult," Leclerc said.

"We managed to find that pace for the qualifying pace, which was great. However, we need to keep in our mind that on the race runs, we seemed to be a little bit on the back foot compared to Red Bull.

"I think that we're in a better place starting third with new tyres than starting first with older. I don't know if I would have been in pole or not but it would have been close."

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
5. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
6. George Russell (Mercedes)
7. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
8. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)

Fernando Alonso provided an unlikely threat to Max Verstappen and Red Bull in practice ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen and Red Bull will be expected to take the Formula One title again this year after dominating in 2022.

But Verstappen topped the charts in neither of the first two sessions of the week on Friday.

Team-mate Sergio Perez was fastest in FP1, yet Aston Martin's Alonso was in second, ahead of third-placed Verstappen.

In FP2, F1 great Alonso then went one better with the fastest time. Verstappen was again one place back, in second, with Perez third.

Red Bull could at least be encouraged by the lack of a credible challenge from their long-standing rivals.

Charles Leclerc was fifth and then fourth for Ferrari, and the two Mercedes cars were further back still.

Lewis Hamilton was made to work hard for a pair of top-10 finishes in 10th and eighth, while George Russell settled for 11th in FP1 before falling to 13th in FP2.

A new Formula One season is upon us and the 2023 campaign will be the longest in the history of the elite motorsport class.

The number of races is rising to 23, with Las Vegas joining the show, though drama will not be limited to the track.

Two seasons ago, the controversial conclusion to the campaign in Abu Dhabi was a dominant story, while last year saw Red Bull's budget cap breach and an Oscar Piastri fight between Alpine and McLaren, as well as frustrations with governing body the FIA, notably over the drivers' freedom of expression.

Get set for sporting theatre to unfold over the course of the season ahead, though the biggest talking point centres around whether anyone can dethrone Red Bull.

Red Bull gives you wins

Max Verstappen finished at the front in 15 of 22 races last season, setting a record for the most triumphs in a single campaign, and he has won over half of the events in the past two years (25 wins from 44 races).

While pre-season testing never offers a full indication of what lies ahead, Red Bull's strength was still evident and the consensus is that the defending champions will begin the campaign with an advantage over their rivals.

 

If that gap cannot be reduced, the biggest threat to a third consecutive crown for Verstappen may come from team-mate Carlos Perez. Should that happen, tempers may flare as they did in Sao Paulo in November when Verstappen refused a team order to allow the Mexican through.

One aspect that may provide hope to Red Bull's rivals is the punishment issued for the budget cap breach, which included a 10 per cent reduction in aerodynamic testing allowance for 12 months. While it came too late to have a major implication on the overall develop of this year's car, it could restrict the team's ability to fix any issues that arise.

Ferrari's fight to the front

A season that offered so much promise for Ferrari last term ultimately fell away through mistakes in race strategy and engine failures, the latter of which resulted in the team having to run in a low-power mode to avoid further woes.

Charles Leclerc certainly has the ability to go head to head with perennial rival Verstappen, who he has raced since his junior days, while Carlos Sainz got his long-awaited maiden F1 win at Silverstone last year.

The appointment of Fred Vasseur as team principal, replacing Mattia Binotto, hands the Scuderia an experienced head on the pit wall and may result in fewer questionable calls in race strategy.

Ferrari are confident they can mount a challenge this season and, even though Leclerc has conceded Red Bull may start with an advantage, he believes the Prancing Horse can respond.

"The target is still [to win the title]. Even if we are starting a bit of the back foot compared to them in terms of performance, I'm sure we can come back," Leclerc told Sky Sports.

Mercedes on a mission

Any hopes of a Mercedes revival in 2023 appear to have stalled already, with testing performances suggesting the team may have to look over their shoulders at those chasing from behind rather than competing at the top.

Mercedes' design continues to divide opinion, with a zero-pod approach being vastly different to their rivals and leading to questions about whether they have stuck to their guns out of pride rather than sporting merit.

With Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel, there is always a chance and the Briton will be determined to come back and add to his record 103 race wins having failed to secure a victory last season – the first campaign in his career when he has not registered a win.

The seven-time world champion was outperformed by team-mate George Russell last season, however. Russell secured a maiden race win in the penultimate race and offered consistency throughout the campaign.

Best of the rest

The biggest surprise of the testing weekend in Bahrain was the pace shown by Aston Martin who, with the addition of Fernando Alonso, have a driver who could mount a serious threat to the bigger guns on the grid.

Though a third world title for the Spaniard may be a stretch, regular podiums and dethroning one of the big three in the constructors' championship is certainly an achievable goal.

At Alpine, great care will be taken to ensure French compatriots Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon do not find themselves butting heads, with a frosty relationship over the years, while McLaren have already admitted they missed their development targets and start on the back foot as a result.

Andreas Seidl, now at the helm of Alfa Romeo-Sauber, enters with high expectations ahead of the team's transition into Audi in 2026, while AlphaTauri's long-term future continues to be questioned despite assurances Red Bull will not sell their second-string team.

Expect the season to also see further rumblings regarding new additions to the grid, with Porsche and Andretti among those pushing to join.

As ever, there is plenty to watch out for in F1 and from the first corner to the last there are likely to be surprises along the way.

Formula One returns this weekend with Red Bull clearly the team to beat after a dominant 2022 season.

Max Verstappen won his second straight drivers' championship but in far more comfortable fashion than the previous year when the most dramatic of finales saw Lewis Hamilton pipped.

And unlike in 2021, it was a double celebration for Red Bull as the team also took the constructors' title after a run of Mercedes triumphs.

But Red Bull's commanding campaign did not start as strongly as it finished, and hope of a repeat will encourage the chasing pack at this week's Bahrain Grand Prix.

Red Bull pair Verstappen and Sergio Perez were both forced to retire at this event a year ago, while Ferrari's Charles Leclerc controlled proceedings with pole position, the fastest lap and a race win.

Unfortunately for the Scuderia, it was not a sign of things to come.

Verstappen was back on the top step of the podium at the next race and soon disappeared into the distance.

That initial result was nothing out of the ordinary as Red Bull have only once won the first race in the calendar, back in 2011 when they took the first two.

Those slow starts clearly do not hamper Red Bull across the rest of the season, although they will hope to avoid a similar early setback this time and have both Verstappen and Perez off to a fast start.

Charles the chief threat

If Red Bull are to be beaten again this week, last year's victor Leclerc appears the man most likely to profit. In the past six races in Bahrain, he is the only man to secure pole twice. A third would make this his favourite event.

Meanwhile, podiums for both Leclerc and team-mate Carlos Sainz would make Ferrari the first team to tally 800 in F1.

But Leclerc has been guarded on the merits of his SF-23 car, telling F1's Beyond the Grid podcast: "Sometimes I've had a car that feels good, and until you see the lap time, you're like, 'okay, this feels pretty good'. And then you have a very bad surprise watching the lap time. Sometimes it is the other way."

All eyes on Lewis

The driver of most interest this weekend might be the man who finished the season sixth last year. Lewis Hamilton vanished from contention, and while Mercedes' issues were the key factor, he also trailed new team-mate George Russell.

At the very least, Hamilton will expect to fight back and beat Russell this year.

Only in Abu Dhabi (10 points) and Great Britain (zero points) has Russell won fewer points than his 12 in four editions of the Bahrain GP, so the opportunity is there for Hamilton to forge an early lead.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen expects Lewis Hamilton to challenge him for the title next year "if he has the car to do it".

Hamilton, a seven-time drivers' championship winner, was blighted by car issues with Mercedes last season as he failed to win a race for the first time in his career.

Red Bull star Verstappen tallied a record-breaking 15 wins to finish 146 points ahead of closest rival Charles Leclerc in a dominant title-winning 2022 campaign.

But the Dutchman does not envisage a third straight F1 crown coming with such relative ease in 2023.

"He's been one of the greatest drivers ever in the sport, so for sure if he has the car to do it, he can fight for the title again," Verstappen told Sky Sports of Hamilton.

He added: "But that's the same for George [Russell], it's the same for Charles, it's the same for Lando [Norris] – if you give them the car that's capable of winning the championship, they can.

"But it's also about when you have the car then the pressure comes you cannot afford big mistakes.

"That's a bit of a different pressure you have but I'm confident once these guys get onto a roll like that it is all possible, they all have talent to do so."

Red Bull cruised to the constructors' championship last year, winning the title for the first time since 2013.

However, the team have been hit with wind tunnel testing restrictions and CFD limitations after they were judged to have breached financial regulations.

The full impact of those punishments is unclear but a reduction in time allowed in the wind tunnel could lead Red Bull to fall behind their rivals in aerodynamic developments.

"You always try to go for it, but I don't know if we're going to be good enough," Verstappen added.

"Of course as a team we believe we are, we are very motivated, we come off the back of a very strong year and we are working flat out to try and achieve that."

Ford will return to F1 this year for the first time since 2004 and partner with Red Bull from 2026.

Verstappen cannot wait for the partnership after seeing success in a collaboration with Honda, having also witnessed first-hand the struggles with the Renault combination.

"I signed twice without actually fully knowing what was coming in terms of engines, and people said maybe that's a crazy thing to do," he continued.

"I believed in the project and I believed that everyone involved would make the right decisions for the team.

"The first one they made going with Honda, I think that worked out really well and now for the future this is the next step – Ford in 2026 – and I believe in it.

"If we all believe in it, I'm sure we can create something really cool."

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