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BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - APRIL 30: Race winner Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing and Second placed Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrate in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on April 30, 2023 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Is Perez a real threat to Verstappen’s treble F1 title tilt?

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - APRIL 30: Race winner Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing and Second placed Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrate in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on April 30, 2023 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Azerbaijan Grand Prix winner Sergio Perez was hailed as ‘King of the Streets’ after his double triumph in Baku but the Mexican will have to raise his game everywhere to be a real Formula 1 title threat to Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen.

Red Bull are also streets ahead of the rest in a private Formula 1 battle, with their drivers on two grand prix wins apiece after four of 23 rounds and no sign of anyone else getting close.

Double world champion Verstappen left Azerbaijan on Sunday six points clear at the top and nothing in his demeanour suggested he is remotely concerned about 33-year-old Perez’s challenge.

The Mexican can claim to have won more races than Verstappen in 2023 when the Saturday Sprint Race in Baku is included, but the score was 15-2 to his Dutch teammate last season.

Five of Perez’s six F1 career wins have been on street circuits, Baku the first time he had won twice at the same track, and he has yet to win more than two races in any season.

If Baku was an outlier, then the two Red Bulls are at least sufficiently evenly matched – at present – to provide some suspense amid the domination. The rest are otherwise fighting for scraps from the Red Bull table, hoping upgrades and the pace of development will eventually close the gap.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who was third on Sunday after starting on pole position, finished 19 seconds behind second-placed Verstappen.

Leclerc: Red Bull are in another league once it comes to the race

The Australian Grand Prix was a safety car finish but in Saudi Arabia Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso was 20 seconds adrift of the Red Bulls in third place. In Bahrain that gap was 38 seconds, prompting Leclerc to observe: “They are in another league once it comes to the race.”

Verstappen was the victim of circumstances on Saturday and Sunday, contributing to the first in a sprint clash with George Russell’s Mercedes that left the Red Bull with a hole in its sidepod.

On Sunday the timing of the safety car also played into Perez’s hands, and against Verstappen, but the Mexican was already putting the pressure on.

Damon Hill, the 1996 F1 world champion and Sky Sports television pundit, felt Verstappen had been surprisingly “off-tune” all weekend and that may give Perez hope for the future. While Verstappen had cast doubt on his future, blasted the new sprint weekend format and clashed with Russell.

“I get the sense there’s something a bit out of sorts with Max at the moment,” Hill told viewers. “He’s talked about not wanting to race beyond 30 or whatever it is, weird stuff. Why is he talking about this now? He’s right in the middle of a championship and it’s a bit odd.”

Verstappen has only one rival for the 2023 F1 title… Perez!

Whatever the reason or reality, Verstappen currently has only one rival for the title – teammate Perez – and that is a man he has been able to beat consistently in the past. The Dutch ace is secure in his top status within Red Bull, who brought in Perez to back him up and also has a string of favourite circuits still to come.

“So far this year we have been at tracks which are a bit stop-start, not the full-on racetracks,” Verstappen said on Sunday. “There are few really fast corners and fast straights out there, which I probably also seem to enjoy a little bit more.”

Miami is next up followed by Imola, Monaco and Spain. Verstappen won three of the four of those last year with Perez triumphant on the streets of Monte Carlo, thus the veteran will need to do better this time if he is to prevent the double F1 World Champion become a triple Champ. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)