The right team, but the wrong time – The great Formula One conundrum of Sergio Perez

It’s difficult not to feel sympathetic for six-time grand prix winner Sergio Perez, amid a continual downward spiral in form and continual speculation over his Formula One future. And his opening lap, first corner exit from his home Mexico City race did little to quell that sentiment.

“To be honest since I was starting the race, I’d be really disappointed to be on the podium knowing that I had a chance to go for the lead and I didn’t take it. I just went for it,” said Perez in a post-race interview sounding like someone desperate for a result in his home race and perhaps lacking surety over his future.

A future that even after the Mexico City Grand Prix, Checo’s employers continued to guarantee through upholding the contract that is valid through to the end of the 2024 season. Team Principal Christian Horner said, “you wouldn’t be racecar driver if you weren’t going for it.”

(Photo by Bai Xuefei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

From fifth on the grid, Perez made his ‘best start of the season,’ according to Horner and was a chance of taking the lead going around the outside of Turn 1. Instead three-into-one does not work, and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari became the filling of a Red Bull sandwich and sent Perez airborne and out of the race.

Throughout the 2023 season, Perez’s form and future with world champions Red Bull Racing has been a constant topic for discussion in the media and public. It feels like an eternity since the 33-year old veteran of over 250 grands prix was talked of being in contention for the championship off the back of winning two of the opening four races.

At the time, it was reflected in this column that the likelihood of Perez sustaining a title bid let alone being supported in one by his team against the now three-time world champion and wunderkind Max Verstappen, was all but nought. As good a driver the Mexican has proven to be throughout his decade-plus career in Formula One – he’s not in that league of greats that his teammate and other rivals are.

Since finishing as runner-up to Verstappen at the Miami Grand Prix after laying down the gauntlet in qualifying with pole position, Perez endured a tumultuous run of failing to make to Q3 and only appearing on the podium four times out of the last fourteen races. In what can be described as arguably one of the best Formula One cars designed in the RB19, the Mexican holds onto second in the championship by only 20 points with three races still to go.

Thus, the sympathy as it feels that Perez has been gaslit into believing he can be a title contender – when ultimately any chance with Verstappen is his teammate in a Red Bull team which is so one-sided, is non-existent. It’s a harsh sentiment, as any driver’s goal in motorsport is to reach the summit of being a world champion – but in reality it is a peak that only few can clinch.

(Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Instead of grappling with the thought of being the hero, Red Bull really should’ve been explicit in assigning Perez to the supporting role, as Mercedes did with Valtteri Bottas while Lewis Hamilton romped to four successive titles between 2017 and 2020. It certainly helped maintain a harmony within the Brackley outfit at arguably their peak in their eight-year stranglehold on the constructor’s championship. While the Finn in life after Mercedes reflected on the mental trauma of being cast into being the seven-time world champion’s number two.

Though perhaps, whoever sits in that second Red Bull seat is doomed regardless of the intense media and public scrutiny – let alone the pressure they’re subject to by the team’s senior management figures in Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko. Just ask Pierre Gasly and Perez’s direct predecessor in Alexander Albon.

What made the opening lap racing incident in Mexico that claimed Perez more tragic for the incumbent Red Bull driver, was the emphatic performance for former Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo for the affiliate AlphaTauri squad. Seventh, after qualifying fourth in what was widely labelled the worst car on the grid in 2023 – has bolstered the beleaguered Italian outfit from the bottom of the table to eighth. A result that has a US$20 million prize, if AlphaTauri stays ahead of Alfa Romeo and Haas.

(Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

As someone who doubted Ricciardo’s return to replace for the underwhelming Nyck De Vries, after his own underwhelming and seemingly career-ending stint at McLaren – it’s a pleasant feeling to be proven wrong. Outqualifying Perez firstly, the Aussie’s performance in Mexico was vintage Ricciardo and indeed would’ve done no harm in auditioning himself ironically for the seat or ‘fight’ as Horner remarked that he walked away from at the end of 2018.

If Red Bull’s word is to be believed and Perez’s contract is honoured through to the end of 2024, then one certainly hopes that the Mexican can reset over the off-season and come into the new year with a fresh mindset that sees a return to the ‘Minister of Defence’-like form seen in 2021 and 2022. Before gracefully announcing a well-earned retirement beyond that.

2024 may see Red Bull’s greatest challenge in the championship after completing title doubles in the past two seasons unchecked. The formidable driver combinations of Mercedes, Ferrari and even McLaren could exploit a Red Bull lineup if it were to have fragility in its second seat to Verstappen.

Though, with the threat of losing second in the current championship all the greater after the costly DNF in Mexico and Red Bull’s firm target of securing their first ever one-two in the standings – the possibility is greater than ever that Red Bull elect no mas and hand marching orders to Perez. Or even Perez himself decides the pressure is not worth the pain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.