Dubbing a Formula 1 driver ‘a good number two’ feels like damning with faint praise. As Valtteri Bottas once famously said when informed of how Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff described him after the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2018, “wingman hurts”.
But while the rarest commodities in F1 – or any auto racing category for that matter – are the gold-standard drivers – the support acts are also highly valued. That Bottas heads into a fifth season as Hamilton’s teammate in 2021 is proof of that, as is Red Bull’s struggle to find the right partner for Max Verstappen.
Sergio Perez has justifiably been deemed the solution to Red Bull’s problem, and he ticks many of the boxes. Hugely experienced, with 10 F1 seasons under his belt, and a consistent force in the ultra-competitive midfield – not to mention now a proven winner. He’s also a driver who sits in that tier just below the superstars, which is the well teams must draw from to find the right support act.
Perez has not been signed to fight with Verstappen or to challenge for the title. But he is there to be a regular feature at the front, pick up consistent podiums and ensure Red Bull has a second bullet in the chamber in races. Over the past two years, Red Bull has lacked this, as first Pierre Gasly then Alex Albon proved to be too far behind Verstappen, and too often caught up with the front of the midfield.
So his targets will be clear. His job is to qualify, on average, within 0.3s of Verstappen and to be there in the front pack in the race. But as Gasly and Albon have shown, that isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. It’s the value of a driver like Bottas – who on adjusted qualifying average was within a tenth of Hamilton over the 2020 season. By contrast, Albon only just dipped inside the 0.5s mark behind Verstappen.
Perez can certainly achieve this, although having to measure up to Verstappen in the same team will be the toughest challenge of his career. Yes, he went up against Jenson Button at McLaren in 2013 and did a better job than people remember – although his approach and attitude didn’t endear him to the team in the first half of the season before improving too late to save his place – but this is a new level. The McLaren break should have been his shot in a frontrunning team, but the car wasn’t competitive. The Red Bull will be, and in Verstappen, he faces a difficult yardstick.
The pressure will be on Perez to justify his appointment. He’s certainly got the skillset, as he’s a decent – though not extraordinary – qualifier, but he is a driver who executes superb race performances. Not only is he the master tire-manager, with what Racing Point technical director Andy Green has called “built-in traction control”, but within that ability to pace himself he’s also capable of making key passing moves and deploying the pace when it’s most needed. There’s a touch of the Alain Prost about his Sunday capabilities, which makes him perfect for the style of racing in F1.
The key question is how good the car will be. The Red Bull RB16 had some fundamental limitations in faster corners that led to compromises that caused limitations elsewhere. The car was tricky to drive, and as a result, was at a disadvantage to Mercedes when it came to tire management. The cars are frozen, but enough can change to iron out these weaknesses next season. Perez can also play a part with his set-up philosophy, which has always been to privilege the race over qualifying. But first and foremost, he must be – and can be – a consistent presence in the lead group in qualifying and the race.
At the same time though, a good support must not be too quick. While there are obvious benefits to having two absolute top-liners, such partnerships are rare in F1. They can also prove fractious, as was most famously showcased by the alliance of Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren in 1989-90. There are other examples, such as Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet at Williams in 1986-87 and Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007.
What’s often misunderstood about number two drivers – whether they are defined contractually or by performance – is that in the long-run the stronger driver always becomes the leader. Performance is at a premium in F1, and teams will only ever contain the perceived number two in a support role for a short time. That’s why every driver goes into a team expecting to assert themselves as the leader. This is exactly what Charles Leclerc has done at Ferrari, ending teammate Sebastian Vettel’s time at Maranello in the process. It just takes an extraordinary driver to do this given the level that the very best drivers operate at.
But there have been some formidable support players in F1 history. Bottas is the great exponent of the role for this age, with Hamilton and Mercedes winning four titles in his four seasons at the team. That makes him the latest in a long line of strong number twos. As Bottas might say, “that hurts”, but it’s a role that requires huge ability.
Rubens Barrichello is statistically the greatest of them, having spent six seasons in his long grand prix career as teammate to that year’s world champion. It happened five times at Ferrari alongside Michael Schumacher, with history repeating itself at Brawn in 2009. Of course, Barrichello’s number two status was clear, with the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, where he had to hand victory to Schumacher, the most famous example.
Before Barrichello came Irvine as Schumacher’s number two. A surprise choice for Ferrari to recruit for 1996, especially given it had to pay $5million for the privilege, his approach fitted in well with Ferrari. He even had his unsuccessful shot at the title in 1999 after Schumacher broke his leg, but just fell short. But he then translated that into a lucrative three-year stint with Jaguar, just as Barrichello would leave Ferrari to join Honda.
But Schumacher is not the only one to have benefited from the support of number twos. Sebastian Vettel had Mark Webber at Red Bull from 2010-2013, although the Australian came close to taking the title in the first of those years, while a few years before that Fernando Alonso had Giancarlo Fisichella as his Renault wingman. The list goes on – David Coulthard to Mika Hakkinen at McLaren, Riccardo Patrese to Nigel Mansell at Williams and Nelson Piquet at Brabham, Gerhard Berger to Ayrton Senna at McLaren, Francois Cevert to Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell. You can even stretch back to 1959-60, when Bruce McLaren was a strong support act for Jack Brabham at Cooper.
What’s remarkable when you look at the list of most frequent title-winning teammates – at least, before you get into the 1950s and line-ups become larger and more muddy – is how rare it is for these drivers to be championship winners in their own right. Since 1960, only 11 drivers who have won the world championship have been teammates to a title-winner in a season. Considering the top drives are usually monopolized by the best drivers, that’s very telling. That list includes Hamilton and Nico Rosberg thanks to the upset of the 2016 season, Prost, Senna, Mansell and Lauda. But beyond that, it’s mostly a collection of drivers with good, race-winning, reputations but firmly regarded in that second tier of drivers.
Most importantly, they are usually – although not exclusively – drivers who their former team-mates speak highly of. After all, while the perfect number two is there to rack up points in the constructors’ championship and take them off rivals of the lead driver, they are also there to be helpful. Hamilton speaks highly of Bottas because the Finn is a very good driver capable of pushing him in qualifying in particular and contributing to the team, but not quite at his level. Ask any driver and that would be the perfect profile for a teammate.
It also requires a good temperament. As Bottas exemplifies, you usually need a driver who sees themselves as a potential world champion to ensure they keep pushing themselves and don’t slide into a cruise and collect mode. In order to do that, it requires an admirable robustness of personality. At times in his stint as Hamilton’s teammate, Bottas has seemed like a broken man – most famously at the end of the 2018 season – but every time he picks himself up and goes again. Far from deserving ridicule, he should be given enormous respect for that quality. There are some, such as Irvine at Ferrari, who accepted their lot – but they are rarer beasts.
This determination must fall short of ruthlessness, of the willingness to destabilize a team for personal gain. This is recognized as a necessary, if not especially attractive, quality in a star driver, but can be disastrous in a number two who can’t back it up with team-leading performances as they attempt to usurp the established order. That’s the tightrope that Perez must walk – he can’t simply cruise and collect, and you can be sure he will head into 2021 wanting to, probably even expecting to, beat Verstappen. That’s simply the mindset of the competitive animal in elite sport. But he must ensure he channels that drive into maximizing his own performance and certainly ensure he avoids some of the on-track clashes he had with former teammate Esteban Ocon in their days together with Force India/Racing Point.
Perez doesn’t quite have the magic that Verstappen does, despite being a superb driver in his own right. If he gets it right, he could set himself up as the ideal partner for Verstappen over the coming years, which will give him the chance to rack up more wins and perhaps, if circumstances allow, even a title bid. If he gets it wrong, there’s a whole gaggle of Red Bull juniors in the queue to take his place.
Perez will most likely make it work. He’s no longer the less mature driver he was when he drove for McLaren, understands how the world works and is capable of channeling his competitive drive into maximizing his own performances and racking up the points.
And if he does become the perfect number two to Verstappen, history tells us that’s an achievement to be celebrated rather than derided.
After all, plenty of drivers given such a chance have ended up being more of a ‘number three’ driver in a two-driver team.