Crumbling under the visor – How Perez and Stroll lost the battle with themselves

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Formula One is a sport of driving skill and mental strength, and in the words of Christian Horner: “If they’re good enough they swim, they survive. If they’re not…” Nowhere has this been more evident than Formula One in 2023.

Cast your mind back to the 6th May. Sergio Perez trails Max Verstappen by just six points in the championship, with 87 points to his name after four races. Dominant wins in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan marked Perez’s best start to a season, taking full advantage of opportunities that presented themselves.

Perez put his RB18 on pole position in Miami, as Verstappen failed to set a time in Q3. Perez’s biggest rival started 9th, and he could take the championship lead with victory in Miami.

Fast forward 24 hours, and Verstappen’s championship lead stood at 14 points. Perez’s dream Saturday long forgotten, disappearing in a puff of tyre smoke on lap 48. Verstappen breezed past him, securing a dominant victory.

This will have hurt Perez psychologically more than he let on, his biggest chance disappearing before his eyes. By missing one opportunity, he tried too hard to create new ones. And the subsequent results were not pretty.

At the very next round, Perez crashed in qualifying in Monaco. Starting from last, he failed to score any points that weekend. The 14-point championship lead became 39. In the blink of an eye, Verstappen was out of sight.

Perez failed to make Q3 in the subsequent five round, until the Hungaroring where he finally eked his way into the top ten. Better returns followed between the Hungarian and Italian Grand Prix, before Red Bull’s Singapore blip exacerbated Perez’s struggles. In the last three rounds, Perez has returned just five points, and his teammate wrapped up the title at round 17 of 22.

He has lost the psychological war against Verstappen. He lost the mental battle against himself.

Perez lost the psychological war against Verstappen

“Sh*t.” “I don’t know.” “Just drive.”

Lance Stroll’s post-qualifying interview at the Qatar Grand Prix following his fourth consecutive Q1 exit consisted of just seven words. He looked a broken man, mentally exhausted and a shadow of the driver he was in 2022. He even shoved his personal trainer, unacceptable resorting to violence against members of his own team.

Stroll was outscored by four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel by just 19 points last season. On average, Stroll was 0.13 seconds behind the German in qualifying over the course of 2022. In comparison, Stroll is averaging a qualifying gap of over 0.6 to new teammate Fernando Alonso, scoring just 47 points to Alonso’s 184 after 17 rounds this season.

Ironically, Stroll looked best in 2023 when he was struggling with his broken wrist. The AMR23 was at its fastest early in the season, and whilst the car has got worse, Alonso has continually battled to points positions throughout the second half of 2023. Stroll has had no such luck.

Racing has been about consistency, attrition, and staying out of trouble in 2023. The quality of wheel-to-wheel action in Formula One throughout 2023 has been dire. Overtaking numbers are down, and the effects of dirty air for a car following closely are up by 70% on last year.

Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll are opportunistic drivers who take advantage of dynamic situations. Their respective podiums at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix are a perfect example of this. When others around them were losing their heads, Perez won the race, and Stroll came home in third.

Races have been far more pedestrian throughout 2023. The cars are easier to control in slow speed corners, meaning the number of clumsy incidents at slow speed has decreased. racers now must rely on their raw talent and awareness to maximise opportunities when they present themselves.

In Formula One, your teammate is the yardstick for performance. Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll’s teammates boast over 80 wins combined, and five world titles between them. Their task was never supposed to be easy. Yet their own minds have made it worse.

In Formula One, your teammate is the yardstick for performance

Ever since Miami, Perez has arrived in the paddock with a defeatist attitude, knowing he missed his only opportunity at taking the championship lead. For Lance Stroll, the disappointment of not being able to race the AMR23 to its full potential at the front of the field means he feels he is always playing catch up.

When a driver is playing catch-up, they begin to try and outdrive the car. Suddenly, man and machine are to working in perfect harmony. As a result, lap times get slower, and the driver tries even harder to recover the lost lap time. This becomes a vicious and never-ending cycle, causing performance loss and media scrutiny.

From there, a driver loses their own mental battle, struggling to believe that their best is good enough. Stroll and Perez are stuck in this pattern, psychologically defeated the ruthlessness of Alonso and Vertsappen in the hyper-intensive cauldron of Formula One.

Both Stroll and Perez need time out of the spotlight – their mental toughness used to its limits and beyond. The demons inside their heads have taken over, and the two doubt their own skill. Formula One is a ruthless world, and these two have lost the psychological battle in search of victory on track.

Image: Sophie Little

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