Motor Sports

Verstappen heavy favourite in Melbourne as Red Bull drama rumbles on

Melbourne: Max Verstappen will be heavy favourite to make it three wins from three this season as his Red Bull team attempt to put weeks of paddock intrigue behind them at the Australian Grand Prix.

The Dutch three-time world champion emphatically led home teammate Sergio Perez in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but the celebrations were overshadowed by team disunity and allegations against Christian Horner.

The long-serving Red Bull boss was cleared of inappropriate conduct involving a woman colleague ahead of the season-opener in Sakhir and tried to put a lid on the drama in Jeddah.

But the unnamed woman has appealed to Red Bull GmbH, the parent company of the all-conquering Formula One team.

She has also reportedly lodged an official complaint to Formula One's governing body the FIA, ensuring the saga will rumble on in Melbourne this weekend.

Horner has guided Red Bull to six constructors' and seven drivers' world championships since 2005, including the last three won by Verstappen.

But the star driver's father, the former racer Jos Verstappen, claimed earlier this month that Red Bull faced being "torn apart" if Horner remained in his position.

His son also issued a veiled threat to quit if team adviser Helmut Marko was sidelined in any power struggle.

Horner insisted "it is absolutely fine with Max", but added the caveat that "we are a team and no single individual is bigger than the team."

That piqued the interest of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who needs a replacement next season when Lewis Hamilton departs for Ferrari.

"There is no team up and down the grid who wouldn't do handstands to have him (Verstappen) in a car," Wolff told reporters ahead of arriving in Australia.

Intrigue aside, victory in Saudi Arabia was Verstappen's ninth in a row, with more of the same expected at Albert Park, barring any technical hiccups.

"It has been a great start to the year and we don't know the full potential of the car yet, so now we want to keep the momentum going," said the Red Bull ace.

Verstappen won a chaotic race from pole in Australia last year, holding off Hamilton after the grand prix was red-flagged three times, with multiple crashes and just 12 drivers finishing.

It was his maiden win in Australia and Red Bull's first in the country since Sebastian Vettel in 2011.

Perez, in the other Red Bull, is the only driver to get close to Verstappen this year.

The Mexican is determined to keep pressing hard as Ferrari's Charles Leclerc snaps at his heels.

"Max is driving at a super-high level and I think he is the only driver who has maximised qualifying and the race so far this season," said Perez.

"It is great though because I have the best possible challenge in him. I must keep evolving weekend after weekend."

With Verstappen already 15 points clear of Perez and 23 ahead of Leclerc, the Ferrari number one is desperate to break the stranglehold in Australia and close the gap before it widens too far.

Whether his Ferrari partner Carlos Sainz returns is up in the air after the Spaniard missed Saudi Arabia with appendicitis.

In his absence, reserve driver Oliver Bearman, just 18, scored a stunning seventh on his debut after just one free practice session, showcasing the Briton's huge potential.

Hamilton's Mercedes has now gone 47 races without a win, and judging by the car's performance so far, they won't be breaking the barren streak any time soon.

Instead, it looks set to be another week of battling for the minor places with Aston Martin and McLaren.

Seven-time world champion Hamilton, who came ninth in Jeddah, believes his car has potential but admitted it was struggling with grip at high-speed corners.

"These next few races will be tricky but we will be putting in a great deal of effort to improve as much as we can," he said.

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