Sergio Perez will partner Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing in 2021 to pitch two race winners together at the team for the first time since Daniel Ricciardo’s exit. But can the Mexican thrive where his two immediate predecessors, Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon, faltered? MotorsportWeek.com looks at four key areas.
Across the past 15 years Red Bull has poured resources into its young driver programme, cultivating rising stars, using Toro Rosso as a training ground – and finishing school – for potential F1 front-runners.
It was a path trodden by Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo before Verstappen stepped up to Red Bull aged only 18 and won first time out. Verstappen is a supremely gifted driver whom has bent the usual customs and norms for youngsters.
The driver he replaced at Red Bull – Daniil Kvyat – was rushed through to Red Bull earlier than planned following Vettel’s surprise Ferrari switch.
A similar situation befell Gasly, drafted into Red Bull after just 25 grands prix at Toro Rosso, when Red Bull was stung by Ricciardo’s Renault move. The other option – the on-loan-at-Renault Carlos Sainz – by then was finalising a move to McLaren, having previously upset the apple cart with his public desire to seek pastures new.
When Gasly was demoted to Toro Rosso in came Albon, after only 12 grands prix, becoming the first rookie since Lewis Hamilton to have a race-winning car underneath him.
Both Gasly and Albon are older than Verstappen but had less Formula 1 experience – and the change for 2021 brings a different dynamic to the equation.
Perez’s recruitment, even on a short-term deal, means that for the first time since Red Bull signed Mark Webber in 2007 it has looked outside of its scheme.
Perez has started 191 grands prix across the past decade for Sauber, McLaren and Force India/Racing Point, and will bring a wealth of experience of different machinery and different cultures.
If Perez suffers a similar outcome to Gasly and Albon then it would undoubtedly cause more introspection at Red Bull about how it operates not only the second car but the entire team. If a third driver in three years struggles – one with 10 podiums and a decade of experience – then it would suggest the driver is not the fundamental catalyst.
It also changes the dynamic on the other side of the garage, with Verstappen now the younger and less experienced of the pair for the first time since Ricciardo’s exit. Verstappen can tap into that experience and profit from Perez’s skills.
This is the aspect that is going to be the likeliest concern.
Verstappen’s one-lap pace is exceptionally strong to the extent that he regularly prevailed over Daniel Ricciardo during the closing stages of their time as team-mates – albeit often by small margins, and with Ricciardo still getting his foot in.
Neither Gasly nor Albon got anywhere near Verstappen across 2019/20, though it would be remiss not to also factor in Verstappen’s own growth too.
The pressing concern for Red Bull was the lack of one-lap pace from Gasly and Albon left the duo often mired in the midfield and not acting as a back-up, or even challenger, to Verstappen in his fight with Mercedes. And if Verstappen retired then Red Bull was effectively a non-participant thereafter.
“Most of the time when we were competitive this year, I was the only car trying to beat them [Mercedes] and trying to do something different,” said Verstappen. “But they can always do the right strategy with one of them, because they will cover me with one car.”
Gasly only once qualified in the top four – and even then was 0.409s down on Verstappen – and while Albon achieved the feat on four occasions, including matching Verstappen identically at Suzuka in 2019, the gaps were regularly large this year. Of Albon’s three P4s through 2020 the smallest gap was 0.445s at Mugello.
Verstappen’s average grid spot in 2020 was 3.06, Albon’s was 7.36 – meaning typically there were four positions separating the RB16s before the lights even went out.
Red Bull therefore needs a driver who is more capable on one lap.
Perez has only once qualified inside the top three in 191 attempts, which came in Turkey this year, on the occasion of Racing Point team-mate Lance Stroll taking pole position.
Perez gradually raised his game against Nico Hulkenberg across 2014-16, though still trailed the overall head-to-heads. Against Esteban Ocon he started strongly but the Frenchman prevailed comprehensively in pure head-to-heads in 2018, albeit with little to separate them in terms of time of positions, with Ocon’s average starting spot just under one place higher than Perez. Across 2019/20 Perez has largely held the upper hand over Stroll though the Canadian remains a difficult barometer, given his peaky and inconsistent results.
Red Bull previously indicated that Albon should aim to get within three-tenths of Verstappen in qualifying, a target he failed to achieve, but one which Perez must attain to start races on the front foot. If he can beat Verstappen then that’s a bonus.
During his brief stint at Red Bull Gasly’s racecraft was weak, including spending almost half of the 2019 Austrian GP stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, and it was an area that deeply frustrated Red Bull’s senior hierarchy.
Albon immediately impressed with his racecraft from the rear of the grid on his senior team debut in Belgium, passing Daniel Ricciardo around the outside of Turn 9, then sticking a wheel on the grass as he passed Perez along the Kemmel Straight.
Albon also pulled off a string of eye-catching moves on occasion on 2020, notably around the outside of Raikkonen through Silverstone’s Copse corner, and a podium-clinching move on Ricciardo at Mugello.
Both of those moves were excellent and decisive – albeit on drivers Albon should not have been battling in the first instance.
In the few occasions he was able to scrap among the front-runners Albon came off second-best, against Lewis Hamilton in Brazil last year and Austria this, though a willingness to get stuck in was welcomed by Red Bull and Hamilton was deemed culpable for the clashes.
But Albon’s pure race pace remained alarmingly shy of Verstappen’s. Even in grands prix where he was clear of the midfield fight Albon drifted away from front-running contention, most notably in Styria and Bahrain, winding up trailing Perez before being gifted a podium.
There were also too many race-defining errors or instances where he was anonymous in a podium-contending car.
The Spanish Grand Prix was one such occasion while his Mugello podium – a week after a dire time at Monza – did not lead to the upturn in form Red Bull expected. Albon had a string of disastrous rounds culminating in a spin at Imola after being out-foxed in battle by Kvyat and Perez.
Perez had a tendency to get in unnecessary scraps early in his career but his racecraft has been largely excellent in recent years.
He has had only one race-ending accident across the last three years – in the Hockenheim torrent in 2019 – and has been a points machine for Racing Point. Perez’s only failures to score this year came at Silverstone – which he missed due to contracting Covid-19 – and in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, where the engine packed up.
In Portugal Perez recovered from a clash with Verstappen to take seventh and in Sakhir he famously surged from last to first through a mix of racecraft, strategy, pure speed and pouncing on his rivals.
Perez is also supreme in understanding how to extract the best from Pirelli’s notoriously tricky tyres, either in terms of extending stints, or in executing the alternative strategy.
Through much of his career Perez has turned half a chance into a profitable opportunity, a perfect asset for a midfield team, and one he needs to maintain once he gets into front-running machinery.
Mentality and approach
This is another element where Perez, in theory, should be stronger than his immediate predecessors – though much may depend on the traits of the RB16B.
Both Gasly and Albon had their fair share of crashes and for the Frenchman, who shunted twice in pre-season testing, that lack of confidence appeared to hang over him for his all too brief stint with the team.
After leaving Gasly accepted there were aspects that he learned about himself and also elements that did not work for him at Red Bull – though kept them private, for obvious reasons.
Albon showed a tendency to be able to bounce back from incidents and accidents, a trait that always pleases Dr. Marko, but overall remained ill at ease with the handling of the RB16 for much of the 2020 campaign.
Meanwhile Gasly grew in confidence and stature at Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri with a string of superb displays, most notably remaining resilient up front en route to a shock Monza win. AlphaTauri and Gasly have understood each other in a way that never happened at Red Bull.
Red Bull gave Albon time to prove himself but the overall performance never came.
“We all still believe in him, he’s a great kid, he’s got great talent,” said team boss Horner at Imola. “Obviously he’s only in his second year of Formula 1 and everybody is rooting for him to really claim that seat.”
Albon time and time again has faced difficulties in his career, in terms of funding and the risk of the rug being pulled at any time, and that forged an easy-going attitude – but with a resilient streak – that endears him to contemporaries and onlookers. But it meant for little when the results didn’t come.
Perez has also lived through the school of hard-knocks.
He has regularly rebounded from setbacks, almost lost his career after being axed following a brutally troublesome season at McLaren, and even had to get involved in the business side of the sport mid-2018 when he was a crucial player in the administration process that kept Force India going.
He has spent much of his career in one-year deals, owing to his sponsors’ role in the situation, and even after securing a three-year contract found himself replaced, at a crossroads, through much of 2020. The pressure of having an uncertain future did not faze him in the way it affects some other drivers.
Perez has so far only been signed up for 2021, and is an outsider in a company that usually promotes from within, but past evidence suggests not having a 2022 contract is unlikely to influence his performances.