BAKU, Azerbaijan -- After four rounds of the 2023 season, the battle between the Red Bull drivers is far closer than many expected. Max Verstappen leads Sergio Pérez by six points in the drivers' standings, with the pair taking two race victories each, and Perez winning the first of six sprint races this season.
During their time together at Red Bull, Verstappen has dominated their partnership, taking 27 wins to Perez's five. But this year has a different feel to it, with far less pressure from rival teams creating a private title battle between the two Red Bull teammates. As a result, one-two victories are much easier to come by, limiting the ability for one driver to pull away in the standings if both cars have error free weekends, but mistakes are far more costly.
As far as Perez is concerned, the title chase is on.
"Having three kids at home, I wouldn't be travelling around the world if I didn't believe that I can be a world champion and I'm working towards that," Perez said.
"There is so much you can talk outside the car, it's important to deliver on the track and I think without the issues we had in qualifying in Melbourne we should be leading the championship.
"So definitely there is everything to believe that we can do well this year."
As Perez alluded to, his points deficit at this stage of the season comes entirely from the Australian Grand Prix, where beached his car in the gravel during qualifying and blamed the mistake on a technical issue under braking. After starting the race in Melbourne from the pit lane, he recovered to fifth with the fastest lap but still dropped 11 crucial points to race winner Verstappen.
The Mexican's return to form in Azerbaijan, where he genuinely looked like the quicker of the two Red Bull drivers, was significant even at this early stage of the season. It's true he benefitted from the timing of the safety car to take the lead from Verstappen in Baku, but he had been pressuring his teammate up until that point, which in itself triggered the timing of Verstappen's pit stop.
"At the time from what we could see, we decided to pit Max because he was starting to struggle a little bit with the rears on his car, and Checo was obviously right up behind him," team principal Christian Horner explained after the race. "So we decided to, from a strategy point of view, it was the optimum time to take the stop."
Just before Red Bull made that call, Nyck de Vries had clipped the inside wall at Turn 5 and gone straight on at Turn 6. With the front left steering of his AlphaTauri broken, a safety car period was required to remove the car from the circuit, reducing the pace of the field and immediately offering Perez an opportunity to pit for new tyres and resume ahead of Verstappen, who also lost a position to the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. Verstappen quickly found a way past Leclerc, but despite pushing hard for the rest of the race did not get close enough to attempt a move on his teammate and had to settle for second.
Following on from Perez's victory the day before in the 17-lap sprint race, when Verstappen finished third behind Leclerc after receiving damage to his car in a skirmish with George Russell on the opening lap, it was one of the few weekends in their time as Red Bull teammates when Perez looked like the stronger of the two drivers.
Perez's win two races ago in Saudi Arabia was also impressive but equally rested on an element of fortune as Verstappen's chances were scuppered by a driveshaft failure in qualifying that left him 15th on the grid and second to Perez in the race. Perez's detractors will point to Verstappen's bad luck in both instances, and while it's true that the Mexican will have to win races in a more straightforward fashion this year to secure the title, his performances on both occasions were top-drawer among the best he has delivered in F1.
There is, however, one key similarity between Perez's two wins this year, which also applies to all five of his victories as a Red Bull driver: they have all come on street tracks.
"Checo is definitely living up to his nickname of king of the streets, or whatever his latest docuseries is going to be called," Horner said on Sunday evening. "An incredible weekend by him, obviously winning the sprint race yesterday.
"He got a little bit lucky with the timing of the safety car, but having got the lead, he built close to a four-second lead at one point and controlled the race. He used his opportunity and converted it into a great win.
"They were pushing each other hard, I think they were comparing times that they touched the wall under the podium there. But we let them push all the way through, that was always the plan going into the race."
Look deeper at the reasons for Perez's relative strength in Baku compared to his teammate, and it's clear Verstappen wasn't comfortable with his car for much of the weekend. Due to the sprint race format, which introduces parc ferme conditions on Friday evening ahead of qualifying, drivers have to make setup decisions for the whole weekend after just one hour of practice on Friday.
Verstappen never seemed entirely comfortable with the rear of his car in either of the qualifying sessions or the two races, and during the grand prix he was regularly in conversation with his engineer about how he could tweak his differential and engine braking settings to find a better balance.
"There was not a problem with the car," he explained after the race, "but I'm probably operating them [the settings] a bit differently to Checo.
"Maybe I'm not using the correct settings with these tyres and probably it was a little bit more highlighted on a street circuit where there's a lot of confidence needed on entry [to the corner] to mid-corner and that balance really needs to be as close to perfection basically.
"I was just struggling a lot with that today at the beginning and then I was trying a few things. Sometimes, of course I didn't get it right but then towards the end I think I found -- let's say -- the right settings from entry- to mid- to exit and also the team was helping me a bit and I had a few questions.
"So, a few things to review for the upcoming races, what we can do better operationally, but again, sometimes you have weekends where you don't need to touch the car, everything is perfect and it's a rocket ship ... we still have a rocket ship but still need to fine tune basically so far this year, I think."
By contrast, of course, credit should be given to Perez for finding confidence in his setup from Friday practice and improving with each session despite being outqualified by Verstappen on Friday.
"It was a great weekend overall," Perez said. "We delivered when we had to. It was a lot of pressure.
"I felt that with this [weekend] format it puts a lot of stress on the drivers, on the engineers, the mechanics. So the way we delivered over the weekend was great.
"Yesterday, we executed a good [sprint] race. But I think today, the way we pushed each other, Max and myself, pretty much from lap one onwards, once we got Charles, it was basically a race between us from the start to the end.
"I think that first stint was a big key to my race today."
Despite claims of a perceived bias towards Verstappen at Red Bull in recent years, the team has made clear that the two drivers are free to race for the title this season. Speaking on Sunday night, Horner reiterated that point but said the focus at this stage of the season is to take advantage of the performance advantage the car has now in the expectation that rival teams will catch up when Red Bull's development restrictions -- a penalty in place until October for breaking the 2021 cost cap -- start to bite.
"At the moment, the two of them, there's a slight gap between the rest of the field, but there's 19 more races to go and five sprint races, so there's a huge amount of racing at a whole variance of different circuits to go through," Horner said. "It could ebb and flow between the two of them, reliability could be a factor.
"And of course, what we're more focused on as well at the moment is building a buffer with both the drivers, because when we get back to Europe, I'm sure there's going to be sizable upgrades, and of course we have a reduced capacity to develop this year. That's where our focus is, trying to build a gap."
Asked if this could be the start of a year-long battle between the two drivers, the sort that F1 needs between teammates when one team is so far ahead of the rest of the field, Horner added: "Well, there's six points between them after four races, so yeah. They are both competitive drivers, they both want to win and that's why they are employed by the team. It's down to what they do on the track."
But it's still too early to expect an epic battle between teammates similar to the ones between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes in 2014 and 2016 or Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988 and 1989. Rewind 12 months to this time last year and Verstappen only had a five-point lead over Perez after four races. By the end of the year that lead was 149.
Perez's true test will come through the middle of the season when fewer street circuits feature on the schedule and Verstappen gets more comfortable with the car. Mistakes like the one in Melbourne will have to be eliminated and opportunities like the one in Baku will need to be seized over and over again. He will have to be as relentless as Verstappen and provide 19 of the best performances of his career.
"As I say, I only regret the problems we had in Melbourne, that really made us lose a lot of points," Perez said on Sunday evening. "But other than that, we have to win the races that we can, and when not, we have to score as many points as possible, because if we don't do that, then there is no way that we will be able to fight for the championship.
"So it's a very long way ahead. There are a lot of races coming up, a lot of different moments, but we have to make sure that when we are able to win a race, we have to make sure we grab it with both hands."
But if Verstappen is concerned by the performance of his teammate, it isn't showing. Despite his disappointment at the timing of Sunday's pit stop, which cost him the lead in Baku, he was calm and philosophical about the situation, saying 'it can never be perfect all the time. I think they're always days that you can learn". .
On his championship chances, Verstappen added: "We clearly have the fastest car at the moment, but I've been in this position before and it's about consistency. It's a very long season, a lot of different tracks are coming up.
"So far this year we have been at tracks which are a bit stop-starty, not the full-on racetracks. There are few really fast corners and fast straights out there, which I seem to enjoy a little bit more.
"But clearly, Checo this year has really been on it, he's been really performing well and that's great to see. He's feeling more and more confident in the car and for the team as well, we are really enjoying it.
"And I think Checo and that's also what is very important: you need to acknowledge and also appreciate when somebody has done a great job. And that's exactly what happened today.
"We will continue fighting for the rest of the season but that's normal, we have done that our whole life."