2021 WILL BE THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGE FOR PEREZ
Verstappen will be joined by Sergio Perez next season after the Mexican signed a one-year deal with the team.
The Dutchman is hoping the added experience from Perez’s recruitment will help to take the fight to Mercedes in the last year of the current formula.
“[Perez] had a great season,” added Verstappen. “He did a really good job with the car.
“He brings a bit more experience to the team and I’m excited to work together [with him]. He’s a nice guy, so I’m sure we’ll get along very well. I hope with the two cars we can make it a bit more difficult for Mercedes next year.”
Dietrich Mateschitz insists Red Bull chose Perez exclusively based on on-track performance – and 2020 was the year of Perez’s life so far with a long awaited victory and a smattering of podiums in the controversial Racing Point.
But 2021 will be the Mexican’s toughest challenge and judging by how ruthless Red Bull can be on the driver front, Checo has to perform alongside Verstappen – who bar Hamilton, is probably the ultimate in raw speed and racecraft.
It will have taken quite a lot for Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and Mateschitz to swallow their pride somewhat and sign the first driver directly to the main Red Bull team from outside their young driver programme since 2007.
Unfortunately Alex Albon has seriously struggled in the second seat, being outqualified by Verstappen in each and every Qualifying in 2020 and never really coming close on Sundays.
So they had to look elsewhere for the sake of the team’s chances in both championships, hoping Perez could use those unique tyre-whisperer skills that date right back to his early F1 career with Sauber and McLaren.
Perez definitely doesn’t need to beat Max, just be closer than Gasly or Albon to give the Mercedes’ strategists a bit more to think about and ensure Verstappen brings in those victories.
This way Red Bull hopes to have a chance of toppling the mighty beast that is Mercedes.
RED BULL’S EXPECTATIONS
Sergio Perez has been handed a deserved Formula 1 lifeline by Red Bull, and there are reasons to suggest that he can thrive where his predecessors failed to live up to expectations.
For the first time since Daniel Ricciardo’s exit in 2018, Red Bull will field two race-winners in its driver line-up next season. The signing of Perez also marked a significant change in philosophy from Red Bull, being the first time since Mark Webber joined in 2007 that the team has turned to options outside of its talent pool.
But where Daniil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon all faltered under the weight of expectation in the high-pressure environment, Perez has proved he can deliver as a trusted and reliable racer, having turned in an outstanding 2020 season that Red Bull simply could not ignore amid Albon’s own struggles.
Despite an encouraging end to the season, Red Bull ultimately decided that Albon had not performed strongly enough in his 18-month tenure with the team to justify continuing in his seat alongside Max Verstappen.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner acknowledged it had been “impossible to ignore Sergio’s performance in Racing Point, particularly in the second half of the season” during which Perez claimed his maiden win at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Perez’s displays have left Red Bull convinced that he will help them put in a stronger challenge to Mercedes next season in what will mark the Mexican’s first shot in a genuine front-winning car at the age of 30.
The former Ferrari junior did have a stint at McLaren in 2013 as Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton’s replacement but it was unfortunately timed and coincided with the beginning of the Woking outfit’s dramatic decline.
Eight years later, Perez will get a genuine chance to prove his worth at the front of the grid having built himself a very strong reputation as being one of the most accomplished and reliable drivers on the F1 grid.
So what makes Perez stand out compared to those that have jumped into the Red Bull hot seat before him?
These are the areas where the Mexican can make the difference for Red Bull.
This was by far Albon’s biggest weakness that arguably laid the foundations for his downfall at Red Bull.
Red Bull had hoped that Albon would regularly get within three-tenths of Verstappen in qualifying but his Saturday showings were hugely underwhelming as he suffered a 17-0 qualifying whitewash and was never higher than fourth on the grid. It was a similar story for Gasly before him.
While Perez may not beat Verstappen in qualifying, Red Bull will expect him to get closer than either Albon or Gasly could manage on a Saturday – and that is exactly what Red Bull needs if it is to better take the fight to Mercedes on Sundays.
If Perez can regularly line up alongside, or just behind Verstappen on the grid, it will provide the team with greater strategic variability with Perez acting as a back-up or even a potential challenger himself.
While Perez trailed in the one-lap head-to-heads against Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon at Force India and Racing Point, he has generally held the upper hand against Lance Stroll over the last two years, claiming just his third top-three starting position of his career in mixed conditions in Turkey as Stroll took a shock maiden pole.
Perez should prove to be a more solid and consistent match for Verstappen. Providing he can meet Red Bull’s 0.3s target the Mexican will be well positioned for the race. He could also benefit the team by forcing Verstappen to up his game further, elevating him to higher success.
The Dutchman is relishing the thought of Perez pushing him next season.
“It’s always a bit difficult to fight [Mercedes] and I just hope Checo will be the one, first of all, to push the whole team forward but also keep me on my toes, which is always nice – to have a teammate pushing you – it’s exciting,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s going to change anything to my performance, but it’s more that we have a second car which is capable of being up there as well the whole race and trying to put a bit of pressure.
“Most of the time when we were quite competitive this year, I was the only car trying to beat them [Mercedes] and trying to do something different, but they can always do the right strategy… because they can cover me with one car.”
If Perez’s qualifying record – while respectable – is the less impressive aspect of his game, then race day is certainly where he comes into his own.
Red Bull were actually impressed by Albon’s Sunday performances, with the Thai racer regularly demonstrating strong pace and showing a willingness to pull off bold and clean overtakes when required.
With Perez, the team has landed itself one of the best and most consistent race drivers on the grid.
It is by far Perez’s strongest aspect, highlighted by his remarkable streak of scoring points in every race he finished in 2020, including excellent recovery drives in Turkey and his stunning last-to-first effort in Bahrain. Tyre management has been a particularly stand-out characteristic for Perez ever since he joined the F1 grid back in 2011 with Sauber.
Outlining Perez’s abilities in this area, along with his technical feedback and overall race day execution, Racing Point technical director Andrew Green said his capacity to look after his tyres was akin to him having “built-in traction control”.
“He’s massively underrated,” said Green ahead of the season. “I think he’s absolutely at the peak of his career now, he’s not fazed by anything.
“His feedback has always been amazing, his mental capacity to drive the car and feedback on what the car is doing – and on a Sunday afternoon with the race around him – means for me he is one of the best.
“His tyre management is in the top two or three on the grid, there’s not many who can do better. He just has that feeling as he goes into the corner of what the tyre’s doing, what it needs, what he needs out of it.
“His slip control on the throttle coming out of the corners is just remarkable, it’s like he’s got built-in traction control.”
Considering this, Perez should be a regular contender for the podium in a Red Bull and will surely add to his impressive collection of 10 rostrum appearances he has accumulated for Sauber, Force India and Racing Point so far.
With 10 F1 seasons now under his belt, Perez is one of the most experienced drivers on the grid.
You cannot imagine this latest spec-Perez running deep and throwing away a win to Fernando Alonso as he did back in Malaysia 2012. He has simply eradicated those kinds of mistakes from his game.
Perez showed that he could take it to Jenson Button during his brief spell at McLaren, despite his time at Woking being remembered for being largely unsuccessful, and he has matured greatly since those days.
Perez now boasts the experience to deal with pressure and setbacks – something which hampered Albon and Gasly at Red Bull as both drivers noticeably suffered major confidence knocks and struggled to recover from them.
Perez has demonstrated that he is a team player and can also play the team leader role when required. While he did give McLaren a bit of a headache at times and also had a number of notable run-ins with Ocon at Racing Point, it is hard to see him causing major fractions within the Red Bull dynamic given the manner in which this opportunity has fallen his way.
The situation is a win-win for both Red Bull and Perez. A one-year deal provides Perez with a deserved chance to prove his worth in a car that will finally match his talent, while Red Bull gains one of the most in-form drivers to aid its bid to dethrone the ultra-dominant Mercedes.
Having driven the Mercedes-powered Racing Point/Force India since 2014, Perez also boasts knowledge of the ins and outs of how the Mercedes power unit operates, information that will undoubtedly prove valuable to Red Bull and Honda.
Going up against Verstappen is undoubtedly Perez’s biggest challenge of his career yet, but if he can take the fight to his highly-rated teammate and provide Red Bull with what it needs, it would make sense to extend his initial deal.
And even if things don’t go to plan, Perez will likely have an abundance of options in the midfield for 2022.
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