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Red Bull tensions could give Leclerc chance to win in Baku and the F1 championship

Red Bull tensions could give Leclerc chance to win in Baku and the F1 championship

Eurosport UK

Charles Leclerc’s pole position gives him an excellent chance of victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday, but Red Bull’s infighting could make it easier for him.

On the face of it, the signs are already positive for Leclerc. The Ferrari driver had looked vulnerable in recent weeks as problems with his own car and a Red Bull resurgence allowed Max Verstappen to chip away at his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship standings.

Going into qualifying at Baku, the Monegasque driver had not expected to beat either Verstappen or Sergio Perez to pole position, but he emerged to start on the front of the grid when the race begins. While it is far from guaranteed, Leclerc is now the favourite, especially if he is assisted by teammate Carlos Sainz in fourth. And with the Red Bull pair bookended, they appear to be especially vulnerable.

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A couple of days ago, Verstappen’s father, former F1 driver Jos, had complained that his son was not getting the right decisions when it came to team strategy.

Red Bull’s position, not unreasonably, is that they have two drivers and have to accommodate them both, and that they believe it is natural for Jos not to be entirely objective when it comes to Max.

As Formula 1 spats go, this is pretty mild. Michael Schumacher was not averse to playing dirty, and Nico Rosberg was essentially driven into retirement such was the pressure Lewis Hamilton put upon him even as Rosberg won the drivers’ championship. Drivers are teammates but rivals simultaneously, an intimate relationship that is almost designed to cause fractures.

For now, the pair of drivers are engaged in a phoney war. The stakes are not yet high enough, and Verstappen has droit de seigneur as the current champion and campaign leader. But not by such a margin that he can expect his Mexican teammate to give up any of his own ambitions. Perez is 32, and has few shots left at the title. He may have no wish to give up on his personal ambitions when he has the opportunity in front of him.

If Perez can give Verstappen something to worry about, then the Dutchman will not roll over. Verstappen scrapped his way to prominence in F1, bringing opprobrium for essentially breaking unspoken standards of behaviour on the track. Generally the sport had seen gentility increase as overtaking became less common, but Verstappen’s success came as DRS changed the complexion of races, forcing drivers to compete more openly and aggressively. With his combative nature, he was the right driver for the times, though that could now pose a problem.

Verstappen wants to be a two-time champion, obviously. Perez is, in some ways, junior to him whatever the team, but not so junior he has to make life obvious. If Leclerc’s pace advantage in qualifying can be replicated during the race, then it will be up to the Red Bulls to fight for second and third. Sainz could of course further aggravate that if he is able to nibble from behind.

When Verstappen started the season he cut a more mature figure, and he had started to become more circumspect on track in his title-winning season. But back then things were going his way, and he even got a helping hand in the finale from the FIA’s generous interpretation of the rules that gifted him the title. In his mid-20s, it seemed as if his battle would be with Leclerc for the coming seasons, but there are now hints it could be with his own team as much as Ferrari.

Once again under pressure, and perhaps on the back foot, this is another test of Verstappen and whether his mentality really has changed. If he goes back to a driver who pushes the limits of the rules but expands his targets beyond Leclerc and towards Perez, he will find himself likely in the crosshairs of not just his teammate and race authorities, but his employers too. With a contract that is believed to run until 2027, that will force Red Bull to take his side from a sense of realpolitik, but it might take their focus off winning with their drivers, and instead to managing them. This may blow over within a few races, but there are potential problems on the horizon for Red Bull. For Leclerc that might not just see him win in Baku, but secure his first championship too.

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