Sergio Perez as World Champion: possibility or pipe dream?

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Sergio Perez, from Jalisco, Mexico, is potentially the only hope at preventing the 2023 Formula 1 season from becoming a Max Verstappen slam dunk.

In his twelve-year-long career, he has gone through many nicknames, starting as “the Mexican Wunderkind” when driving for Sauber, and being christened “the Mexican Minister of Defence” after his title-clinching defence against Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

After being sacked by Racing Point to make way for Sebastian Vettel, Perez was handed a lifeline by Red Bull, who were in the market for a reliable second driver to support Verstappen, and fight Mercedes for the Constructor’s title.

Since then, Perez has been mostly successful, winning four races, achieving his only two pole positions of his career, winning a Constructor’s title, and supporting Verstappen (albeit to different degrees of reluctance) to two Driver’s titles.

Red Bull have always developed their machinery to suit Verstappen’s needs

However, despite the odd pole, and a few other instances, Perez has consistently been a few steps behind his teammate, slower in qualifying and even slower in terms of race pace.

With his contract ending in 2024, and there being no sign yet of any potential extension, this is likely Perez’s last chance to have a run at the Formula 1 World Championship. But can he really fight Verstappen convincingly for a 23-race season?

There have been false dawns before. After a shock pole at the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in which Perez legitimately outpaced his teammate, a safety car jeopardised his race strategy, costing him the win. After this, Perez rapidly dropped off the pace throughout the season, compared to his teammate, only outqualifying him three more times, and finishing in third, almost 150 points behind Verstappen, in largely equal machinery.

There are some possible explanations for this decimation which are out of Perez’s hands. Verstappen prefers, sharper, oversteering F1 cars, and Red Bull have always developed their machinery to suit his needs, even in the days when Daniel Ricciardo was still at the team.

As a result, when the 2022 car was developed, largely away from Perez’s preferred driving style, it would make sense that he would lose pace compared to his teammate.

The 2022 season also saw the first cracks in the team dynamic at Red Bull as well, as, despite Perez’s apparent willingness to give way to his teammate, Verstappen has frequently shown unwillingness to do the same for him.

Famously, Max cost Sergio second place in the Championship by refusing to give way in the Brazilian Grand Prix, ignoring team orders, and citing it as revenge for an incident which had occurred months prior. Shaking Perez’s faith in the team dynamic further, Red Bull did very little to reprimand their star driver, suggesting that they have remarkably little control over the decisions of Verstappen.

In 2023, this hasn’t changed, as despite orders not to, Verstappen still went and set the fastest lap at this season’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, just so he could be one point ahead of his teammate in the standings. Furthermore, this wasn’t the only sour note in the remarkably bitter Red Bull 1-2 win, with Perez expressing displeasure that towards the end of the race he was told to target lap times slower than his teammate, and following his second-place finish, Verstappen said, “personally, I’m not happy. Because I’m not here to be second.”

So as it is becoming likely that Perez is the only man capable of mounting a title challenge, how realistic is this? The odds are certainly stacked against Perez. Based on pure talent and pace, he is certainly some way off his teammate.

Verstappen also has the team in his pocket, who appear at times almost timid to discipline him in any meaningful way, as well as the engineers, who will inevitably update the car to fit Verstappen’s preferences throughout the season.

Perez is the only other man capable of mounting a title challenge

However, if Perez is to look for some inspiration, Nico Rosberg’s 2016 victory over Lewis Hamilton is not a bad place to start. As pointed out by The Race’s Mark Hughes, despite only beating Hamilton in a straight race only four times over the season, a combination of luck, consistency and good reliability was enough to secure Rosberg the title.

In the 10 races where Hamilton finished ahead of Rosberg, the latter secured second in the majority of them and made up points when Hamilton’s engine failed.

Obviously, Perez is not as close to Verstappen as Rosberg was to Hamilton, but it does demonstrate that it is not impossible. In two races, Verstappen has already had two separate drive-shaft issues, costing him in both qualifying and race pace in Saudi Arabia, and if bad luck were to continue, there is no reason why Perez, in the devastatingly fast RB19, can’t capitalise.

The only thing that neutral F1 fans can do is hope and pray that the Mexican Minister of Defence ends his Red Bull career with a bang.

Image: Jen Ross via Wikimedia Commons

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