This post was contributed by Rob Beltman, who has an incredibly insightful eye for racing matters.
This weekend in Mexico, all eyes are soundly focused on one man and one man only. Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez. The talk of the town for multiple reasons, not the least of all is the continuing rumors of his racing career depending on coming in 2nd in the World Drivers Championship this year and having good results in the next races. But there’s also more than enough talk about the rivalry between him and Verstappen in the aftermath of disrespect and animosity shown by his fans to Verstappen. The latter even lead to Max having to take on extra protection for the weekend and a city-wide, organizer-initiated campaign to promote ‘Racepect’. Loads of issues to manage for Red Bull Racing in a weekend where really nothing is left to play for except some ‘nice to have’ records…So logically they are playing it all down.
Are Perez’ problems at Red Bull real?
The Race’s Scott Mitchell-Malm just this Saturday has done an article that argues Red Bull’s claims about ‘made up’ driver rivalry miss the point. He uses Hamilton’s remarks on Friday to demonstrate the lack of support Checo has been getting and of course refers to Helmut Marko’s recent apology for blaming Checo’s underperformance on him being ‘South American’, a statement wrong on multiple levels, of course. We’ll get to those in a minute. Strangely enough the article makes no mention of the rivalry flaring up after Brasil last year, where Max wouldn’t let Checo pass him for 6th after multiple requests from the team. That in turn seemed to date back to Monaco quali, where Checo, many believe intentionally, parked his car at the entry of the tunnel to cause a red flag.
But we don’t need Paddock-rumors to prove a point here. Perez’ problems within the team are clear to see in every single interview he gives. He’s not feeling confident. He hasn’t been feeling confident since Miami, where he was overtaken by Verstappen starting ninth while he failed to convert his pole position. But the trouble started well before that. In Saoudi Arabia he secured a win, while Max had to start down the grid after a driveshaft failure hampered his qualifying. The radio communication about laptimes and fastest laps showed he felt less than assured Red Bull were giving him the right information. In Australia Checo had a poor qualifying as he overshot his braking point, blaming a technical issue which the team later declared they could not find on his car. Ever since the start of the season, Checo has not felt ‘at home’ or at least at ease and confident.
Marko (and Horner) missing the mark?
The personality of Helmut Marko and his typical Austrian candor can be to blame for this lack of confidence. Besides the clear cultural stereotyping ‘faux-pas’, for which he later apologized, Marko has said multiple times that Checo isn’t on Max’ level, albeit in different wording. Such truths, even if statistically sound and part of common knowledge, are generally left unspoken in F1. You at least leave the driver the illusion, or the hope. But Marko, who can almost be seen as a second father to Max, doesn’t beat around the bush. Exactly the same way his good friend and fellow-countryman Niki Lauda also didn’t. But Marko should know (and surely does) that taking a driver’s confidence like this all but emasculates him.
Checo himself therefor has stated multiple times his ambition of fighting for wins, becoming a champion. He feels he can beat Max. It’s just a matter of getting the setup right, getting a clean quali, the tiny little details. But the more he puts this pressure on himself, the poorer he does. He’s actually been in Q3 more often in his Force India days than with the almighty RB19 this year. Looking at them in the most friendly light, the remarks of special advisor Dr. Marko and often also the Team Principle Christian Horner, can be seen as attempts to relieve the pressure. But hearing their constant “Don’t worry…we don’t expect you to finish first.” might not have had a soothing effect on his ambitions. Horner stated several times that Checo reacts better to an arm around the shoulder than a kick in the behind. But maybe that arm should not be one of pure pity. Being told you’re really not expected to outperform your nearest rival is a kill-buzz like no other.
Some more pity was thrown at Checo from an unexpected competitor, who said it must be hard to not have the full backing of your own team. Or at least of some highly placed individuals. Lewis Hamilton, in making those comments, was more outspoken about the inner dynamics of a rival team than almost any competitor would permit themselves to be. It provoked a response from Horner not a day later, pointing out there is some level of hypocrisy in Hamilton’s remarks; “It’s very nice that Lewis has so much care and attention [for Perez] when he was questioning the validity of Max’s teammate only a few weeks ago.”
He is of course referring to the fact that Hamilton claimed all his teammates have been better than any of the teammates Max had been up against, throwing some serious shade in Checo’s direction, but also disrespecting Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon and Gasly by implicitly saying they couldn’t measure up to the likes of Kovalainen or Bottas. Hamilton also had explicitly stated that if he were in Checo’s car, he’d be giving Max a harder run for his money. It seems Lewis is more interested in stirring the pot and directing attention away from another dismal season for Mercedes, rather than truly being a champion for Checo.
Lucky number 2
Lewis luckily isn’t the one driving any nails in Sergio’s coffin either, because it seems he won’t be taking second place in the World Drivers Championship away from the Mexican. Two weekends in a row without any points in the main race on Sunday took care of that. Lewis of course took full blame for crashing out in Qatar while colliding with his teammate. Meanwhile his team has acknowledged having made a wrong gamble on ride height in Austin last week, leading to the disqualification, despite Hamilton clearly being reluctant to accept that outcome. In both races, Checo would have conceded important points in what looked a battle that Hamilton could surely win.
Truth be told, he was only in contention because of Sergio’s extremely poor run of form in 2023. He’s had two wins, four 2nd places and two 3rd places in 18 races. That’s 8 podiums versus 17 podiums for Verstappen, including 14 wins so far. Checo’s lack of performance has not been punished because the second team role in 2023 has been changing over the season, from the early Aston Martin brilliance to the amazing comeback of McLaren. And of course there were some regular appearances of ‘usual suspects’ like Ferrari and Mercedes. Had there been one consistent second-fastest team, odds are their number one driver would have easily beaten Checo to second in the championship.
So what about 2024?
It’s clear that Checo won’t be let go very soon. Red Bull currently don’t need anything else from him than the 2nd place finish. The constructors’ title could have been won by Verstappen by himself, such is the dominance of that car and driver combination. But Qatar highlighted that a strong McLaren team could mount a serious challenge, in which Red Bull need a second driver up there with Max instead of trying to come through from P8 or worse. Max himself said he believed the Papaya-partners of Piastri and Norris were the strongest pairing on the grid, which is saying something if you consider the Hamilton-Russell and Leclerc-Sainz duo’s. But it also means he’ll like or sometimes really need a wingman in the fight against those guys. One who is willing, but also able to play 2nd fiddle. Red Bull are giving themselves options testing out Daniel Ricciardo, while having seen what rookie Liam Lawson can do too. But neither seems a clear and immediate ‘upgrade’ from Perez. And so it is really very likely Perez will get another chance to prove his worth in 2024. Red Bull will be hoping he will have learned to cope with the fact that over a season, beating Max is beyond Checo’s ability and that he’ll be just as fine with that as they are. He might just yet prove to be the perfect number 2 in that case.