The seat with a frontrunning Formula 1 team that he currently occupies was a long time coming for Sergio Perez. It appeared he had it with McLaren in 2013 in just his third season in Formula 1, but it proved to be an illusion. McLaren was a frontrunner when it signed Perez to replace Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton in 2012, but the following season it slumped down the order. Perez’s appointment lasted just one year, with Kevin Magnussen taking his place.
Perez’s inexperience and immaturity – a few in the team used the word ‘arrogance’ – didn’t endear him to McLaren’s engineering team. By the time he’d modified his approach and strung together a stronger second half of the season, it was too late.
For years, it seemed there was no way back to a top team for Perez. His gambit of turning his back on a Ferrari affiliation in his hurry to get to the front after two seasons with Sauber had seemingly backfired. But he rebuilt his reputation in seven seasons with what is now called Aston Martin in its Force India/Racing Point guises, becoming regarded not as the coming man he once was, but instead the ‘King of the Midfield’ – a title he never liked, but one that reflected his consistently high level of performance in the congested F1 mid-pack.
Even when he did get his shot with Red Bull last year, he did so after being on the brink of F1 oblivion. With his contract terminated, at some cost, by Lawrence Stroll to accommodate four-times world championship Sebastian Vettel, Perez took an all-or-nothing approach. It was Red Bull, which had run out of patience with Alex Albon, or nothing – most likely to return home to Mexico.
The circumstances were unusual, fortuitous even, but Perez deserved a little luck. His consistently good race performances and evolution as a driver meant few doubted he had the ability to be a very effective top-team number two. But he only sporadically showed that during his first Red Bull campaign in 2021.
Perez has already ticked off his primary objective for this season – securing his place at Red Bull for 2023. After having had to wait until the August break last year to be confirmed for 2022, it’s taken him just seven races this year to lock himself in not just for next year, but also the year after thanks to what the team has called a “two-year extension”.
The 32-year-old has certainly earned it, as you have to when you hold one of the most coveted seats in F1. His 2021 campaign was patchy, with some significant highs – winning in Baku, a run of podiums in the second half of the season and a couple of important rearguard actions that cost Lewis Hamilton time being the highlights amid a lot of struggles. But across the first seven races of this year, he has consistently been the ideal teammate to Max Verstappen. This year, he has been exactly the driver most expected him to be in a top team.
The rules reset proved timely for Perez, albeit not as timely as if the new ground-effect cars been introduced in ’21 as originally planned before COVID-19 forced their postponement. Last year’s high-rake Red Bull was a very particular car, with a strong front end and a lively rear that a succession of drivers struggled to get the best out of.
That gave Verstappen the front-end responsiveness he enjoys, while also being able to live with the lack of rear end at corner entry. But like Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon before him, Perez struggled to deal with what simply felt like an unstable back end. He was closer than them on qualifying pace and, in what was admittedly a more competitive car, got more consistent results, but overall he still wasn’t quite doing what Red bull wanted – as proved by the fact that Verstappen won the drivers’ title but Red Bull missed out on the constructors’ crown.
But Perez did do enough to gain another year. In qualifying, he was just over 0.1s on average closer to Verstappen than Albon had been. Considering qualifying is not Perez’s strongest suit – it’s on race day that he generally shines brightest – that was close enough to acceptable to give him a second chance. Last year, he was on average 0.377s off Verstappen, but has closed that gap this year – twice outqualifying Verstappen after taking pole position in Saudi Arabia and third on the grid in Monaco.
He’s far more at home with the more subdued characteristics of the Red Bull RB18. A combination of the relatively weaker front end at lower-speed corner entries and the slightly more understeery balance of the new low-profile tires for the 18-inch wheelrims. Verstappen has, very effectively, reprogrammed his driving style to a smoother, Alain Prost-esque approach after having realized that’s the how to get the best out of these cars. That’s also a style that better suits Perez.
It doesn’t so much mean that Verstappen is struggling with these cars, simply that he doesn’t have the same advantage that he did in the trickier previous-generation Red Bulls. As is often the case, it’s in the more difficult, knife-edge cars that the great drivers have a greater advantage over the very good – and so it has proved. That said, there have been occasions when Verstappen has had difficulties under braking – notably in Monaco, where Perez had the advantage.
Perez’s Monaco victory, his third in Formula 1, preceded the confirmation of his deal. But given he appeared to let slip in an unguarded moment after that victory that he’d already signed up, Perez had already done the heavy lifting he needed to do. In Spain the previous weekend, he’d twice let Verstappen past when given the order from the pitwall – leading to some uncomfortable discussions after the race. Perez complied, but after being given the second instruction described it as “unfair” over the radio.
This followed a good start to the season during which Perez missed out on a shot at victory in Saudi Arabia after having led the first stint from pole position. After making his first stop, the safety car was deployed, meaning he dropped back to fourth. Without the safety car, he would have had control of the race – albeit with the prospect of team orders hanging over him.
Perez was brought in as backup to Verstappen, but the question now is whether he can be a threat in the drivers’ championship. Currently, he’s only 15 points behind Verstappen and holds third in the championship, making him by definition a contender. That gap is distorted a little by the fact Verstappen has two retirements to Perez’s one – all the consequence of problems rather than driver errors – but he is clearly in the game.
And that is, in itself, the real story. Red Bull doesn’t expect Perez to be able to beat Verstappen over a season. That’s a reasonable position to take and all the evidence points to Verstappen being a great-in-the-making who precious few drivers could go toe-to-toe with. Perez is too experienced and sharp not to know his place, but he also has to push himself to try and break out of the shackles of that number two role. That’s a desire that usually makes for the best wingmen, and should ensure Perez is there to pick up the pieces should he be needed to do so.
Some might argue that’s damning Perez with faint praise, but being compared week-in, week-out to an all-time great, or a great-in-the-making as some would argue Verstappen still is, is hugely demanding. As Valtteri Bottas has proved with his exploits for Alfa Romeo this season, it still requires a driver to be operating at a very high level.
Perez is not Bottas: he has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Bottas was a strong qualifier, able to outqualify Hamilton just under a third of the time in their five years together at Mercedes. It’s difficult to see Perez doing that against Verstappen, who he has so far only outqualified three times in 29 attempts, but he’s never been a stellar qualifier.
Where Perez has traditionally excelled is on race day, where Bottas sometimes had difficulties. Perez’s tire management runs are the stuff of legend and he produced them right from the start with his forgotten run to seventh on-the-road prior to his exclusion for a rear-wing technical infringement on debut, the only driver that day to make a one-stopper work.
He does it not simply by ‘driving slowly’ as some have it, but by squaring off corners, limiting the slip of the rear wheels through his outstanding sensitivity and, above all, being patient. It’s one thing to protect the tire, another to do so while going at a pace good enough to get a good result – that’s the real magic of Perez. But there’s more to him than that. He’s consistent in race conditions even when tire degradation and wear is not a dominant factor. As Hamilton learned in Abu Dhabi last year, Perez is a formidable opponent in battle.
That’s what’s making him such a heavy scorer, and why Red Bull has given him a two-year deal. Even with 11 Red Bull-contracted drivers putting on the pressure – AlphaTauri pairing Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda and Williams loanee Albon, plus eight drivers across Formula 3 and F3 – Perez has proved himself the man for the job.
While he is not quite at Verstappen’s level, Perez has absolutely proved himself worthy of an extended stay with a top team.
The suspicion is that he has little interest in hanging around in F1 in machinery not capable of running at the front, so this could well be his final team in grand prix racing before he turns his attention to family life back in Mexico. But having rebuilt himself as an F1 driver and held out for this opportunity, he’s getting exactly what he deserves. And this latest contract indicates he’s going to enjoy it for a couple more years yet.