Sergio Perez proved to be right on time at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Pre-season he’d talked about requiring five races to get his eye in after moving to Red Bull, so winning on his sixth outing fulfilled his own prophesy.
The fact Perez won was less important than his performance level and the role he played in the race before teammate Max Verstappen crashed out of the lead after a tire failure. Not only did he follow Verstappen past Lewis Hamilton, but he also kept him at bay both in the pre- and post-red flag phases of the race.
Had Perez not started the two-lap ‘Mini Prix’ after the stoppage on pole position then Hamilton wouldn’t have made the mistake of engaging the ‘brake magic’ mode that led to him going off at the first corner while battling with him.
Perez also showed improved single-lap pace, although the final qualifying results didn’t reflect it. Having been two-tenths off Verstappen in Q1, then setting a near-identical time in Q2, he locked up at Turn 4 on his first Q3 run. With red flags preventing a second attempt, that mistake left him 0.354 seconds off Verstappen and sixth on the grid having gained one place to McLaren driver Lando Norris’s penalty. While this was Perez’s error, the underlying pace was there.
After the race, team principal Christian Horner said Perez was “ahead of expectation”. Perhaps that’s true in terms of taking his first Red Bull victory, but he was signed to deliver at exactly this kind of level, and realistically did need to put in a convincing performance. While he was always going to be given some grace at the start of the season – and other team movers such as Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel showing how difficult it is to jump into an unfamiliar car is further evidence of the need to give drivers time – the pressure was always on to get to this level as quickly as possible.
Perez was an unusual signing for Red Bull and a move made reluctantly, simply because he came from outside the company’s driver scheme. Having given Alex Albon every chance to deliver last year, eventually the wise decision was made to bank on Perez’s experience. But the combination of his one-year deal and the fact Red Bull has a genuine shot at winning the world championship for the first time since 2013 means expectations were by definition sky-high. And for Perez personally, this is his big chance.
Expectation played its part in his predecessors in the seat, Pierre Gasly and Albon, struggling. Both were promoted to one of F1’s top seats very early in their careers and couldn’t make it work, whereas Perez has handled the situation much more capably. That shows the value of experience.
At 31 and with 10 years of racing in F1 heading into this season, he had a foundation neither Gasly nor Albon had; a confidence built on the fact he was a proven F1 driver. That’s been reflected in his attitude, which is that of a driver who knows his own game inside out and has been able to take an approach that both works for him, and that he knows will satisfy the team.
Perez also has his own previous top team experience to draw on. When McLaren signed him from Sauber to replace the Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton for 2013, he had only two seasons under his belt and didn’t cover himself in glory. In the first half of the season, his attitude and approach meant there were those in the team who lost confidence in him, which was a key reason for him being dispensed with – along with the rise of Kevin Magnussen, then a McLaren junior.
Perez’s rehabilitation actually started during that 2013 season, with a marked improvement in his approach in the second half of the year. It was too late to save his McLaren drive, but it meant he landed at Force India a battle-hardened driver. Since then, he has continued to improve, emerging as F1’s ‘King of the Midfield’ – a title he disliked, and has now shed – and earning his Red Bull shot.
What stands out about Perez’s approach is that he isn’t falling into the trap of constantly trying to go his own way. He has stuck resolutely to his intention of staying close to Verstappen’s path in terms of set-up and getting the best out of the car. It sounds like an obvious strategy, but so many drivers end up blaming the car for not suiting them when adaptability – a strength of Verstappen’s – is a critical skill for a top grand prix driver. Gasly, in particular, suffered from this mindset and too often spent time chasing impossible set-ups and failing to modify his inputs to match the car.
“First I need to adapt to the car,” said Perez. “We have such a limited track time with these cars this year, with the new rules of testing and also in practice, that everything happens very quick. I have a very strong reference with Max. He is obviously taking 110% of the car. So first I need to get to that level, and then move around. It makes no sense to follow another direction, because I’m just going to get lost.”