Could tension between Sergio Pérez and Max Verstappen derail Red Bull’s dream start?

It has been a dream start to the 2023 Formula 1 season for Red Bull.

But is there potential for it to turn into a nightmare?

There is no question that Red Bull has been the dominant package early in the 2023 F1 campaign. Drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez were very impressive during pre-season testing in Bahrain, locked out the front row in qualifying for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, and followed that up by finishing one-two in the Grand Prix itself, with Verstappen just ahead of his teammate.

The pair seemed en route to another front-row lockout ahead of last week’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, as both Pérez and Verstappen remained strong during practice sessions. However, Verstappen’s RB19 suffered a driveshaft failure during the second qualifying session, leaving pole position for Pérez, and Verstappen in 15th to start the Grand Prix.

Still, it was another one-two for Red Bull, as Verstappen charged through the field to finish in second place behind Pérez. This strong start has Red Bull atop the Constructors’ standings, and the two drivers sitting one-two in the Drivers’ Championship.

Verstappen leads Pérez by just a single point in those standings and it is that point — and how it came to be — that has led to speculation about simmering tensions at Red Bull. Late in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the two drivers were given lap time targets, as the team wanted to ensure a one-two finish. They were told to target a lap time of 1:33.20, a manageable pace to close out the Grand Prix, but Verstappen kept pushing faster, running his laps in the 1:32.60 range.

As Pérez wondered on the radio if Verstappen was being instructed to keep a similar pace, the defending world champion inquired about who had posted the fastest lap, and ignored repeated instructions to maintain lap times in the range of 1:33.20. At one point Verstappen was told that the team was not concerned with the fastest lap — which awards an additional point in the drivers’ standings — but Verstappen was on a different page.

“But I am,” he radioed back.

On the final lap of the race, Verstappen posted the fastest lap of the Grand Prix, securing that additional point, and keeping himself atop the standings.

That led to this exchange between the drivers following the Grand Prix:

“Were you not told to keep the pace?” asked Pérez following his win.

Moments later, during the post-race press conference, the Red Bull drivers were asked about the battle for the fastest lap, and that extra point in the standings. Here is what they had to say.

“With a few laps ago, I asked what the fastest lap was. We were first of all free to race and of course we had a target lap time to the end,” said Verstappen. “It’s a point on the line, it was the same also in Bahrain it got asked so especially when it’s just between the two cars, I think it’s quite normal that you asked for what the fastest lap is.”

Pérez had a slightly different viewpoint.

“Yeah, I asked two laps from the end, while they were telling us… where they told me to keep a certain pace,” said the winner of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. “They told me I had the fastest lap and to keep the pace, a certain pace. So I thought the communication was the same to Max or something. We need to review because I got certainly the different information and I just couldn’t push it there.”

Of course, the events in Jeddah bring to mind last season’s Brazilian Grand Prix. In the closing laps at Interlagos, Verstappen was given a command from his team to move aside and let Pérez pass him. By this point in the season, Verstappen had locked up the Drivers’ Championship, and Pérez was in a battle for second with Charles Leclerc of Ferrari.

Verstappen, however, ignored the request. As he came across the line ahead of his teammate, he let his feelings on the matter be known: “I told you already last summer, guys, don’t ask that again to me. Okay? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons, and I stand by it.”

Pérez let his own frustrations be heard.

“I don’t understand why he didn’t give me the position, even with everything I have done for him. If he has two titles, it’s because of my help!” Perez said.

In the days and weeks since that race, Red Bull has maintained that the air was cleared between the two drivers. Team Principal Christian Horner discussed the tension between the two drivers in the days after the Grand Prix, and had this to say about the incident over the off-season, speaking on Speedcafe TV:

“I think there are certain things that your drivers have the right to discuss in private between themselves. Not every conversation has to be covered through digital media and so on. The drivers had a good conversation after the race in Brazil, the air was absolutely clear, you could see that by the time they arrived in Abu Dhabi, and I think this has been a phenomenal pairing for Red Bull.

“The success that they’ve achieved over the last couple of seasons, their joint performance achieving our first Constructors’ World Championship this year, the first in nine years, has been a remarkable performance by both of them and I’m sure moving forward, they’re going to be delivering as they have done the last couple of seasons.”

He continued:

“They’re both pretty grown-up individuals and they both have an open relationship with each other. So when if ever there is an issue, it gets discussed, it gets put on the table and you talk it through. I think communication is always the best way to deal with any issue and you know, Sergio is an experienced guy, he’s been around a long time. He’s a very rounded guy and Max [is] very much a straight shooter as well, and the two of them have always, you know, enjoyed a decent relationship and I just see that continuing.”

The problem facing Horner right now? All the communication in the world cannot change the fact that at the moment, Red Bull is the dominant force on the grid and as such, their two drivers may be squaring off all season long for the Drivers’ Championship. With Verstappen seeking his third-straight title, and Pérez trying to nab his first.

Could this simmering tension boil over, and spoil the Red Bull show?

We have seen similar championship fights between teammates before, most recently with Mercedes. In both 2014 and 2016 teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton — who grew up karting together and were once friends — battled it out atop the Drivers’ standings.

That friendship slowly turned sour as a result.

Hamilton won titles in both 2014 and 2015, but it was Rosberg who nipped his teammate at the end of the 2016 campaign for the Championship, a title fight that included a dramatic collision between the two at the Spanish Grand Prix, knocking both from the race.

In the final race of that season, the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton was just 12 points behind Rosberg entering the Grand Prix, leaving it all to fight for on the track. In the closing laps, Hamilton was in first place, with Rosberg a few spots behind him. If Hamilton went on to win, and Rosberg finished fourth or worse in the Grand Prix, the Championship was Hamilton’s.

The race leader slowed his pace, trying to bunch up Rosberg and keep him pinned in the group behind him. But the team, seeing a hard-charging Sebastian Vettel, instructed Hamilton to pick up his pace.

With the Drivers’ Championship in his mind, Hamilton ignored the request.

Hamilton did win the Grand Prix, but Rosberg picked up enough places to win the Championship. He would shockingly retire at the end of the season, stating he had achieved his goal of becoming an F1 champion.

Now, both drivers were asked about the potential of a Red Bull duel for the Drivers’ Championship at the close of their post-race press conference in Jeddah, and seemed to b brush aside the notion that such a battle would be a bad thing. “Well, if that’s the case it’s fairly simple, right? We are allowed to race so the best one will finish in front,” said Verstappen.

“If that’s the case, then it will be fantastic news for the team,” added Pérez. “[B]ecause that means that we are pretty far ahead and it comes down to us so it will mean that we are in a great position.”

Yet, something else Verstappen said during that press conference is also worth illuminating:

“And of course in general, the whole feeling in the team, everyone is happy but personally, I’m not happy. Because I’m not here to be second, especially when you are working very hard also back at the factory to make sure that you arrive here in a good state, and basically making sure that everything is spot on. And then yeah, you have to do a recovery race, which I like – I mean, I don’t mind doing it – but when you’re fighting for a Championship and especially, you know, when it looks like it’s just between two cars, we have to make sure that also the two cars are reliable.”

“I’m not here to be second.”

Those years at Mercedes highlight the tension that can grow when a team has the superior package to the rest of the field and the double-edged sword that entails.

Balancing that double-edged sword is now the challenge ahead for Horner.

How well he does so could be the difference between this remaining a dream season for the Bulls, or that dream becoming a nightmare.

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