Sergio Perez warned Max Verstappen he will fight to win the world championship after beating his Red Bull team-mate to victory in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Mexican driver took advantage of an early safety car to pit for new tyres and leapfrog Verstappen before controlling the race to win for a second time this year.

Red Bull are the dominant force in Formula One and Perez’s Baku triumph was the team’s 14th win from their last 15 outings.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who finished third on Sunday, was 21 seconds behind. Lewis Hamilton, sixth for Mercedes, was an eye-watering 46 seconds down the road.

Such is the superiority of his Red Bull machine, Verstappen is still expected to cruise to his third title, but Perez’s victory here breathes fresh life into this year’s title battle.

Perez, who also won Saturday’s sprint race, is now just six points behind Verstappen in the standings after four rounds.

“It is a long year ahead, but I really believe I am in the fight,” said Perez, who dropped points last time out in Australia following a qualifying horror show.

“I wouldn’t say today’s race was my best ever, but it was just very good. I pushed from start to the end without mistakes. When you do that, you believe you can beat anyone so it is just about keeping it up throughout the season.

“I only regret the problems we had in Melbourne that made us lose a lot of points. Without that, I could have been closer in the championship.”

Perez was lauded by his race engineer, Hugh Bird, as the “King of the Streets” after he crossed the line 2.1 sec clear of Verstappen.

The 33-year-old’s victory was his second in Azerbaijan – no other driver has won in Baku more than once – while he has also taken the chequered flag at street venues in Jeddah in March, and Monaco and Singapore last year. Next Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix is also on a street course.

Verstappen would have expected to extend his title lead after blasting past pole-sitter Leclerc on the third lap. But his race fell apart when Nyck de Vries crashed out at the fourth corner.

Verstappen pulled in for new tyres but just moments later the safety car was deployed with De Vries’ broken AlphaTauri needing to be cleared.

With the field running at a controlled speed, Perez was able to stop for rubber and retain the lead.

Verstappen fell from first to third, later re-passing Leclerc, but never threatening to reel in his team-mate.

“I want to win this world championship as much as Max does but there is a lot of respect between us,” added Perez.

“We are very similar in the way we approach the sport so I do not believe our relationship will change.”

Verstappen added: “It is a very long season so it is all about consistency.

“Sergio has really been on it this year and performing well and that is great. He is feeling confident in the car.

“You need to acknowledge and appreciate when somebody has done a great job and that is what happened today. We will fight for the rest of the season.”

Like Verstappen, a pre-safety car change of tyres also cost Hamilton. The British driver dropped from fifth to 10th once the order had shuffled out.

He drove well to move up to sixth, pressing Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz to the flag – at one stage calling on his Mercedes team to provide him with “more power” – but he was unable to find a way past. Hamilton is pinning his hopes on a Mercedes upgrade, expected at Imola on May 21.

“This result is all we can ask for right now,” said the seven-time world champion. “Hopefully the upgrades will put us in the fight. We are counting down the days and weeks until then.”

Fernando Alonso finished fourth for Aston Martin, while George Russell, called a “d***head” by Verstappen following their first-lap collision in Saturday’s shortened race, came home in eighth.

McLaren’s Lando Norris claimed two points after he crossed the line in ninth.

Charles Leclerc conceded Red Bull are in "another league" after Sergio Perez triumphed at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday.

Perez was the fastest in Saturday's sprint and managed to stave off the pursuit of Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen the following day in Baku, the Spaniard claiming his second win of the season.

Leclerc finished in third and the Ferrari driver acknowledged Red Bull are way ahead at present.

"Red Bull are in another league when it comes to the race," he told Sky Sports. "A very good [qualifying] lap managed to put us in front but over 51 laps it was just not possible, they have so much [more] pace than us in race pace. They found something that we didn't yet.

"The feeling is a little bit better but when I see the gap, we don't really know how much we closed the gap. The Aston Martin was also really quick so we have some work to do."

Red Bull are the seventh team in F1 history to have won the first four races of a campaign, with the victories split evenly between Perez and Verstappen.

They have now surpassed Mercedes as the team with the most wins in Baku as the individual battle between team-mates Perez and Verstappen continues to play out.

World champion Verstappen pushed throughout the race but was unable to usurp Perez, who lauded his control when leading the charge.

"It really worked out today for us," Perez said on Sky Sports. "We managed to stay in the DRS train and keep the pressure on Max. 

"I think we had better degradation on that first stint. I think it was very close between us, we pushed to the maximum today, we both clipped the wall a few times.

"The way Max pushed me today was really hard but we managed to keep in control."

Verstappen had the lead after the third lap before clipping the wall on Turn 4, which allowed Perez to overtake, before the Dutchman pitted just before a safety car was deployed.

He labelled that decision to pit as "unlucky", before adding to Sky Sports: "I think the tyres were overheating a bit because of that, trying to follow. 

"Also, the balance, I was struggling to be really consistent, I was playing around with the tools a little bit. Once I got that sorted, I'd say the last 10 laps were actually quite good again, but just a little bit too late.

"A lot of things learnt again throughout the race, at the end of the day, a good team result."

Sergio Perez followed up his sprint race victory with a superb drive to triumph in Sunday's main event at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which was marred by shambolic organisation on the final lap.

Perez was the quickest in Saturday's sprint and the Mexican held off Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc to claim his second race win of the season.

However, the FIA and race organisers will have questions to answer after crew members and photographers were allowed onto the pit lane during the final lap, despite Esteban Ocon having not pitted.

The Alpine driver came in for his pit stop, but managed to slow down enough to avoid any incident.

Fortunately, there was no taking away from Perez's triumph, his second in Baku after 2021.

Leclerc held pole but two-time reigning Formula One champion Verstappen took the lead in the third lap, with Perez overtaking the Ferrari soon after.

Verstappen clipping the wall on Turn Four allowed Perez to close ground, and there was more bad news for the Dutchman when he pitted just before a safety car, which was brought out after Nyck De Vries spun off the track.

Perez took advantage by pitting during the safety car, and was back out in first place by the time racing resumed.

An investigation for a possible unsafe release yielded no penalty for Perez, who would not relinquish his lead and eventually won by over two seconds.

Behind him, Verstappen and Fernando Alonso tussled for the fastest lap, though it was George Russell who clinched it at the death after a late pit stop.

Leclerc, meanwhile, had to settle for third on a disappointing day for Ferrari.

Red Bull on the charge

Red Bull are the seventh team in F1 history to have won the first four races of a campaign, with the victories split evenly between Perez and Verstappen.

Indeed, Red Bull have now surpassed Mercedes as the team with the most wins in Baku.

Verstappen overtakes legendary Senna

One day short of the 29th anniversary of Ayrton Senna's death, Verstappen secured his 81st podium finish.

That is one more than the great Senna managed in his career, which was tragically cut short in 1994.

Charles Leclerc will start on pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix for the third season in a row after an impressive qualifying run on Friday.

Ferrari's Leclerc surprisingly outpaced the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, who will start second and third respectively in Baku.

The Monegasque driver kept up with Verstappen before putting in a time of one minute and 40.203 seconds to beat his opponent by 0.188s.

"I like city tracks in general," Leclerc told Sky Sports. "It's not only here but Singapore, Monaco, here, a track that I really enjoy. You can really play with the limits, more than on a normal track.

"The limit is a hard limit as it's the wall! You cannot overstep it, so it's about building up to be very close to the wall without ever touching it."

Friday's qualifying session determined the race order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with another, standalone shorter qualifying session to take place on Saturday ahead of a 17-lap sprint event – the first of six this season.

However, Leclerc is in no doubt where his priorities lie, even though he admitted his Ferrari is unlikely to be able to compete across Sunday's 51 laps of the six-kilometre Baku City Circuit.

"It went well in the last three years, but we have another qualifying tomorrow, so it could be four poles in a row," Leclerc said. "But we have the race on Sunday, which is more important, but I believe we will struggle a bit more as I think Red Bull is still a step ahead."

Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz will start in fourth on Sunday, with Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in fifth and Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin sixth.

Hamilton's team-mate George Russell will start 11th after a surprise elimination in Q2 on Friday, while there were early crashes from Nyck de Vries (AlphaTauri) and Pierre Gasly (Alpine) as a hectic start to qualifying began with red flags, both hitting the barrier on turn three.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 1:40.203
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.188
3. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.292
4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.813
5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.974
6. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +1.050
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.078
8. Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1.378
9. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.408
10. Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +1.408

Max Verstappen edged out Charles Leclerc to finish fastest in the sole practice session at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Formula One bosses have changed the weekend format in Baku, with the introduction of two qualifying sessions – one to decide the order for Sunday’s grand prix, and the other determining the starting grid for Saturday’s sprint race, the first of six sprint events this season.

Practice has been slashed from three hours to just one, ahead of qualifying for Sunday’s main event at 5pm local time (2pm UK) on Friday.

The reduction in practice is designed to create greater jeopardy with the teams unable to gather as much data as they would like.

And the one-hour running on Friday was suspended for 13 minutes after Pierre Gasly’s Alpine caught fire with the Frenchman leaping out of his smoky machine at Turn 12.

In an incident-packed session, Yuki Tsunoda limped back to the pits on three wheels after he banged the wall, while Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz also brushed the armco at the tight and twisty street circuit on the Caspian Sea.

Double world champion Verstappen has won two of the opening three rounds to establish a 15-point lead over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

On Friday, the Dutch driver pipped Leclerc to top spot by just 0.037 seconds. Perez finished third, a tenth down on his Red Bull team-mate, while Sainz recovered from his brush with the barrier to take fourth.

Lando Norris provided some encouragement for McLaren to finish fifth, eight tenths down on Verstappen.

But Lewis Hamilton could manage only 11th for Mercedes, 1.5 sec back off the pace with team-mate George Russell also struggling, taking the chequered flag 17th of the 20 runners.

Elsewhere, Nyck de Vries finished sixth in his AlphaTauri ahead of the Aston Martin duo of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso.

Max Verstappen believes the approach of the leading drivers in Formula One will not change with the new sprint format, which debuts this weekend in Azerbaijan.

The new approach will see qualifying for Sunday's race take place on Friday, with Saturday seeing qualifying for the sprint followed by the short-form race itself.

Previously, qualifying would set the order for the sprint, which in turn would decide the line-up for the grid in Sunday's main race.

The idea is to encourage drivers to take more risks in the sprint, though Verstappen is not sure that will be the outcome.

"Maybe some people who are outside the points try to get a point. But once you are upfront, it's not making a massive difference," he told Sky Sports.

"I don't see it being a lot different for us than in the previous sprint weekends. There will be a little bit more chaos around because of the extra qualifying. This track is always quite chaotic, so this will make it a little bit more chaotic.

"From my side, I don't think it will change a lot. If you're first, second, third, you're quite happy in that position to just get the points, get it over with and focus on the race."

Verstappen has regularly been a vocal critic against changing the format of Formula One but admits he will have to cope with the new changes.

"You have to be ok with it. I love racing in general but I do feel like you don't have to touch anything that is great and I always thought that Sunday was great," he added.

"Of course, I understand selling more tickets on the Friday and Saturday, make every day worth fighting for, but when you're doing 24 or 25 race weekends, I think a good option would be to shorten it a bit anyway.

"Some people love racing, they will do it forever, but it also needs to be a healthy option as well. At one point, you start questioning that. Then when you add in these sprint weekends, it's even more busy."

While Verstappen made his concerns clear, McLaren's Lando Norris welcomed the new changes and believes the format is much better than before.

"There's still the budget cap, you don't want to damage the car, you don't want to do anything silly. Especially us, where we're wanting to improve the car as much as possible, the least amount of damage we cause, the better," he said.

"But I'm excited. I think it's a better format, I prefer it compared to what we had before. There's more room and more opportunities for everyone.

"I like the fact you have two qualifying. I love the format of practice, then qualifying on the Friday. The pressure is definitely higher, but it's enjoyable."

Ralf Schumacher has told Max Verstappen to either leave Formula 1 or accept the new Sprint Race weekend format, which will debut at the upcoming Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The 'Sprint Shootout' gets introduced this weekend and will set the grid for Saturday's Sprint Race, which means the grid for Sunday's Grand Prix is now determined by Friday's qualifying. 

It leaves just one free practice session in Baku with FP2 and 3 being replaced, and is the first of six Sprint Race weekends in 2023 after only hosting three in 2021 and 2022.

This comes after Verstappen issued a 'quit threat' if F1 continues to make race weekend changes, but Schumacher believes the championship will thrive either way. 

"The past, the present and the future have shown or will show that Formula 1 is much bigger than any individual," he told Sky Sports Germany.

"Bernie Ecclestone is also gone, and without him Formula 1 wouldn't exist - and now it’s more successful than ever.

"So Verstappen should either pack his things and leave, or just accept it as it is. I understand his attitude because there are a lot of risks.

"But still, he gets paid to do it. If he wants to go, then he has to go. Formula 1 will not perish, as much I love him."

Guenther Steiner has hailed the changes saying it is what fans want, and believes F1 could eventually keep adding the format to more race weekends. 

"I don't know if we will do it every race weekend," the Haas team principal told Reuters. "Maybe do a few more or maybe do half of the calendar - the F1 promoter will know what to do.

"At the moment, there is more demand for races [than slots available] so how can you get more races in, more competition, more racing if we cannot do more than 24 events? So just make the event double count."

Will Baku finally have a repeat winner?

In six previous races at Baku, there has been a different winner each time. Nico Rosberg won its inaugural Grand Prix in 2016, before Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and defending winner Verstappen all stood on the top step.

With two of that six no longer in F1 and Bottas now in an Alfa Romeo, chances are only three of them are in with a shot of victory. However, given Red Bull have dominated the opening three races to this season, they will be odds-on favourite to win again on Sunday.

To many, the battle will be between Perez and Verstappen with the double world champion currently 15 points ahead of his team-mate in the standings. If Red Bull wins again, then that will extend Hamilton’s winless run to 27 - his worst in F1 - after Mercedes have struggled since the start of 2022.

However, Fernando Alonso has stood on the podium in each race this season. Therefore, should Red Bull encounter any problems then maybe the Aston Martin driver will extend Baku's record. 

Charles Leclerc faces worst ever start to F1 season

Charles Leclerc's retirement in Australia means he is the first Ferrari driver since Felipe Massa in 2009 to have two DNFs in the opening three races of a season. For the other round, Saudi Arabia, he only finished seventh which leaves Leclerc 10th in the championship on six points.

It is a stark contrast to this time 12 months ago, where the Ferrari driver was leading the championship by 34 points after winning two of the opening three races. Should he fail to score a point in Baku then that will make it Leclerc's worst start to an F1 season, despite driving for Alfa Romeo in his debut year.

Championship Standings

Drivers

Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 69Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 54Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) 45Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 38Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari) 20

Constructors 

Red Bull 123Aston Martin 65Mercedes 56Ferrari 26McLaren 12 

Christian Horner has responded to George Russell saying Red Bull are "embarrassed to show their full potential" and enjoy a bigger pace gap than has so far appeared to be the case. 

Reigning champions Red Bull have dominated the 2023 Formula One season after claiming both pole and the race win in each of the opening three races, including one-twos in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. 

Red Bull have almost double the points of Aston Martin in second in the constructors' championship.

However, at the Australian Grand Prix, Max Verstappen dropped from first to third on lap one, allowing Russell to briefly lead before the Dutchman went on to win the race, while his team-mate Sergio Perez rose to fifth following a pit-lane start.

It prompted Mercedes driver Russell to tell the BBC's Chequered Flag podcast: "For sure, they're holding back.

"I think they almost are embarrassed to show their full potential. I think realistically they probably have seven-tenths [of a second] advantage over the rest of the field.

"I don’t know what the pace difference looks like at the moment, but Max has got no reason to be pushing it, nor [have] Red Bull.

"They've done a really great job, to be fair to them. We can't take that away, and we clearly have to up our game."

When Horner was told about the remarks, he made reference to Mercedes' past dominance of winning eight consecutive constructors' titles before Red Bull ended that run in 2022.

"Okay, that's very generous of him," Horner replied. "His team of all people would know too well about those kind of advantages."

Asked if Russell's comments were true, Horner explained both of his drivers were managing their pace in Melbourne given the intended one-stop strategy before the safety car and red flag dramas.

"There's always an element of managing what goes on in any race," he said. "Because it was a one-stop race and a very early one-stop race, of course there was an element of tyre management which was going on, which was what they were doing.

"[But] Checo wasn't hanging about; he wasn’t cruising around, holding back seven-tenths per lap because he didn't want to show it – the grid was certainly a little bit closer at this venue."

Back-to-back world champion Verstappen leads the drivers' standings by 15 points ahead of Perez, with the season's fourth round on April 30 in Azerbaijan.

Max Verstappen was thrilled to seal his first victory at the Australian Grand Prix and emerge unscathed after three red flags caused chaos in Melbourne.

Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to claim his second win from three races in 2023.

The two-time world champion extended his championship lead to 15 points over team-mate Sergio Perez, who recovered from a pit-lane start to finish fifth.

Red Bull have the fastest car on the track, but Verstappen was made to work hard for his latest victory, the team's first in Australia since Sebastian Vettel triumphed in 2011.

He dropped from pole to third as he was passed by George Russell and Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap, which he suggested was partly due to caution on his part.

Verstappen also made a mental note of what he felt were aggressive moves after earlier complaining on team radio that Hamilton had run him wide.

Three red flags and a frantic finish meant Verstappen was unable to coast to victory when his big lead evaporated for a standing restart, but he held off Hamilton.

"No, not straightforward!" he said after the race. "We had a very poor start. Lap one I was careful because I had a lot to lose and they [the Mercedes] had a lot to win.

"From my side, I just tried to avoid a contact [on the first lap]."

Asked about the battle with Hamilton, he said: "It's quite clear in the rules what you're allowed to do now on the outside, but clearly it's not followed.

"It's OK, we had good pace and we passed them anyway, but it's something for the next races to take into account.

"After that, the pace of the car was quick - you could see that straight away. We were always there, waiting for the DRS to open up to have the chance to pass. 

"But with these red flags, I don't know... the first one, maybe you can do it but the second one I don't really understand. So, it was a bit of a mess, but we survived everything and winning is the most important thing.

"It's great to win here - my first win here and it's been a while for the team as well since winning in Australia, so very happy."

Fernando Alonso looked relieved to have claimed a third straight podium after a "rollercoaster" race.

He thought he had lost his third place in the final moments when contact with Carlos Sainz at the second restart appeared to knock him out of contention.

But after immediately issuing a third red flag, the FIA handed Sainz a time penalty and Alonso was reprieved when it was ruled the order from the previous restart should be restored.

Asked if he had experienced a race like that before, the 41-year-old replied: "Probably not! It was a rollercoaster of emotions with many things going on at the beginning and then also at the end. 

"In the last half an hour it was difficult to understand what was going on.

"Mercedes were very fast. Lewis did an incredible job. I couldn't match or get close enough, but we'll take P3.

"The first red flag helped us because George and Carlos came in and we got those places for free. The second one probably didn't help us with the incident. But we got lucky.

"P3 and P4 is an amazing Sunday for the team. We have three third places now, let's get higher on the podium, let's go for a second place at least!"

The last occasions Alonso was on the podium for each of the first three races of a Formula One season were 2005 and 2006, the two years when he won the world championship.

Max Verstappen continued Red Bull's fine start to the Formula One season as he won his first Australian Grand Prix in a chaotic race on Sunday.

The double world champion did not have it all his own way after dropping from pole position to third as he was passed by George Russell and Lewis Hamilton in the resurgent Mercedes on the opening lap.

There were three red flags, with Russell losing the lead amid the drama around the first and he was later forced to retire, with Verstappen overtaking Hamilton to go in front on lap 12.

Verstappen charged clear from there to claim a second win from three races. He finished ahead of Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, though there was more drama and confusion before the final result was confirmed.

Sergio Perez started in the pit lane after opting to change his car under parc ferme regulations due to his issues in qualifying, but he was able to salvage a fifth-place finish.

Russell overtook Verstappen down the inside of the first corner and with the Dutchman on the back foot Hamilton forced his own way through.

Last year's winner Charles Leclerc was in the gravel after contact with Lance Stroll, ending the Ferrari driver's race and bringing out the safety car in a thrilling start.

The safety was car called out again on lap 7 after Alex Albon hit the wall, with leader Russell diving into the pits.

However, that move backfired when a red flag followed soon after, leaving Hamilton and Verstappen – who had not stopped – with an advantage and Russell down in seventh.

Russell promptly got back up for fourth after the restart, but it was not his day as he then lost power with the back of his car on fire.

At the front, Verstappen clearly had the most pace and easily reclaimed the lead by sweeping past Hamilton round the outside in a DRS-assisted move.

A Verstappen victory rarely looked in doubt from there until a late crash for Kevin Magnussen caused a second red flag.

In a dramatic restart, contact between Carlos Sainz and Alonso caused an immediate third red flag and looked to have ended the Aston Martin veteran's podium hopes.

A period of confusion then followed as the FIA determined what rules would be applied and Alonso was reprieved as it ordered the race to finish with the same order as existed before the restart, with Sainz receiving a time penalty.

Lewis Hamilton suspects Mercedes' sensational Saturday in Melbourne may not be achievable at other tracks and is still unsure if he and George Russell can fight to win the Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes drivers and officials had been pessimistic in their forecasts for the season prior to qualifying in this week's third race.

But Russell secured a place on the front row alongside Max Verstappen, with Hamilton qualifying third-fastest to put the Silver Arrows in a great position to attack Red Bull's world champion.

"I'm a little bit surprised; maybe they are also a little bit surprised," Verstappen said in Saturday's press conference. "But I guess it's a good thing."

It is certainly a good thing for Mercedes, although Hamilton is not convinced this means all their issues have gone away.

"I think it's perhaps track-specific," he said, "but I think ultimately there's no one in the team that's had their heads down, in terms of giving up.

"Everyone's been working incredibly hard to try to squeeze the most out of what we currently have."

Verstappen had not previously qualified on pole in Melbourne, where he is still waiting for his first win.

Hamilton has a joint-record eight poles at this event, winning twice, and added: "I think this gives everyone in the team a boost and a glimpse of hope and this will spur everyone on and will inspire everyone to continue to push.

"We know that if we can just bring a little bit of performance, we can close the gap to the front. Still, there are going to be places where the gap is a lot bigger."

Russell did not entirely concur, countering: "For sure, we maximised the job, no doubt about it, but we had a good qualifying last week in Jeddah.

"I didn't put my lap together in the last run in Jeddah and was only a tenth off P3.

"So no, I don't think it's necessarily track-specific. I do think we're making some improvement with the understanding of the car."

But Hamilton and Russell were in agreement that Red Bull, even with Sergio Perez encountering issues and failing to make it out of Q1, remain the team to beat.

Russell said: "I do still think Red Bull are a class ahead of everybody else.

"For sure Lewis and I got the most out of it today, [but] by the sounds of what Max is saying, there was probably still a little bit more in the locker.

"And we're talking that three-tenths is a little bit – normally, they're a second ahead; now, they're three-tenths ahead – that's still a huge amount in the world of F1."

If only for this weekend, though, can Mercedes challenge Red Bull for the top step of the podium? Hamilton still does not know.

"I haven't even done a long run," he explained. "So tomorrow, going into the race, will be the first time I do so.

"And I've not seen where we tally up compared to them. We have to expect they're going to be a quarter of a second, half a second, at least, quicker than us.

"But maybe in the tow, maybe we can just about hold on; maybe the fact that there's two of us and only one Red Bull, maybe with strategy, maybe we can apply some pressure to them. So, we'll see."

Max Verstappen ended his wait for pole position at the Australian Grand Prix, but Mercedes came out of Saturday with their optimism renewed in Melbourne.

While reigning Formula One champion and season leader Max Verstappen remains the man to beat, he is without Red Bull team-mate in support at the front of the grid this weekend.

Instead, George Russell joined Verstappen on the front row, with Lewis Hamilton qualifying third-fastest in a qualifying session the pair acknowledged was "unexpected".

It could have been even better for Mercedes, with Hamilton setting an initial provisional pole in a hotly contested Q3.

Just 0.301 seconds separated the top seven at one stage, before a dominant Verstappen performance took him 0.236s clear.

"The last run was very good," he said, acknowledging a "very tough" weekend.

After finally securing pole in Melbourne, his next aim is a first Australia GP win.

Verstappen added: "I've been on the podium once, but I want to be on a different step this time."

Yet Mercedes intend to have something to say about that, even if merely getting this close to Verstappen was far beyond their expectations.

"We weren't expecting that, that's for sure," said Russell. "There's a lot of hard work going on back at the factory here in Melbourne, and what a session for us. The car felt alive.

"The lap at the end was right on the limit, and to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed we didn't get pole position.

"It's one of those things, how your expectations change so quickly in this sport. We probably would have been happy with top four, top five yesterday, but the car felt awesome.

"It goes to show we've definitely got potential still to come."

Hamilton suggested this week it would take "the rest of the year to potentially close that gap" to Red Bull, yet the Silver Arrows are suddenly back in contention.

"I'm so happy with this. This is totally unexpected," Hamilton said. "I'm really, really proud of the team.

"George did a fantastic job today, so for us to be up there on the two front rows is a dream for us.

"We're all working as hard as we can to get right back up the front, so to be this close to Red Bull is honestly incredible. I hope tomorrow we can give them a bit of a run for their money."

Absent from the Q3 battle was Perez, who is on a career-best run of three straight podiums and had talked up his title aspirations this week.

But he endured problems right from the outset on Saturday, delayed in his start to FP3 and then running into trouble at Turn 3.

Perez locked up again at the same corner early in Q1 and ended in the gravel, his session over as he bemoaned "the same issue again" over the team radio.

McLaren's home favourite Oscar Piastri, making his Australian GP debut, fared little better, out in Q1.

A strong start to the season for Fernando Alonso continued as the veteran qualified fourth, ahead of Ferrari's Carlos Sainz.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

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

Max Verstappen is relieved there is a break in the Formula One calendar coming up as the drivers' champion battles back from an illness that left him feeling as thought one lung was incapacitated.

The Red Bull driver, seeking a third consecutive title this season, was left stricken ahead of the last race in Saudi Arabia and only just hauled himself together to be able to compete.

In the end, he pulled out something special, finishing second after starting in 15th place on the grid, having dropped out in Q2 due to a mechanical failure.

Verstappen also retained his place at the top of the drivers' season standings by recording the race's fastest lap right at the death, so he leads the way heading into this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

After competing in Melbourne, there will be a break before F1 resumes in Azerbaijan across the April 28-30 weekend, a gap that was created by the cancellation of a planned race in China.

Three clear weeks without competition should allow Verstappen to get back on an even keel, although he signalled the worst of the illness has already passed.

"I was not looking forward to the break, but then I got really ill and have just been struggling a bit since that time, especially last race out," Verstappen said.

"So I think for me now these three weeks are just about getting back to full fitness, getting a full programme in."

Reflecting on his tough experience prior to racing in Jeddah two weeks ago, Verstappen said: "At home I was really ill, I could barely just walk around. It felt like I was just missing a lung, and I got to the weekend really believing that it was gone.

"Normally when you get sick like two, three days after, you’re normally all right – you can just do your workouts – but then when I jumped into the car in FP1, even just one performance lap, I felt like I had to recover for two laps to be able to breathe normally."

He added: "It definitely did affect me throughout the weekend, which I didn't like. It was one of the first races where I felt I was physically limited, and that's really frustrating when you're in the car.

"Since then I've been trying to work on it, trying to improve it, and I do think it has improved a lot, so this weekend should be all right."

Verstappen has yet to have a win at the Australian Grand Prix, with third place in 2019 being his best finish to date.

The 2020 and 2021 editions were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and last year Verstappen retired from the race at Albert Park as Charles Leclerc claimed a dominant victory for Ferrari.

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."

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