Sergio Perez was victorious in the second race of the 2023 Formula 1 season in Saudi Arabia – but was it a flash-in-the-pan performance from the Mexican or the beginning of establishing himself as a credible contender for this year’s World Championship?
The success story of Perez reversing the misfortune he suffered from pole position in Jeddah a year ago to see the win through on this occasion was undermined by the simmering tensions within the Red Bull camp over a dispute concerning the fastest lap in the closing stages.
Max Verstappen undermined the instructions of the team in his pursuit of claiming the bonus point awarded for the fastest lap. His success in achieving that feat on his final course of the circuit meant the reigning two-time champion retains the Championship lead he took from the outset in Bahrain.
With only a single point separating the two Red Bull drivers, it has prompted the early question of whether Perez should be recognised seriously as a threat to his team-mate’s quest for a third successive title.
However, Perez turning the tables on Verstappen in Saudi Arabia was indisputably much more about external factors restricting the Dutchman’s advances than the now five-time F1 race winner authorising that he could provide a bigger threat internally than he has done the past two seasons.
Having cruised to victory in the season-opening race, Verstappen looked perpetually on course to complete an entire clean sweep of every session in the second round. Having instantly dialled his way into the track at the start of qualifying to go five-tenths clear of anybody else, Verstappen suffered the setback of a driveshaft problem derailing any attempt at pole position.
Such was Red Bull’s pace advantage over the rest, Verstappen’s absence opened the door for Perez to negotiate his way relatively untroubled to a second career pole position. But with Perez improving by a whole second between Q1 and Q3, Verstappen likely had the potential to replicate the half-second gap he enjoyed over his partner in the opening segment.
While that critical thinking only provides a rough estimate and Perez didn’t complete his second run in the final stage, the possible margin between the two over a single lap in Saudi Arabia is approximately comparable to the gap between them in the same formula of regulations last year.
Despite losing the lead to Fernando Alonso’s front-row starting Aston Martin at the start, Perez swiftly dispatched him once DRS was enabled, while Verstappen continued to scythe through the pack by using the superior efficiency of the Red Bull to eventually make his way up to second.
Just when it seemed a direct encounter between the Bulls could be set to occur in the final laps, another driveshaft concern witnessed Verstappen’s charge halted, with the reigning champion settling for conducting a successful crack at stealing the additional point for the fastest lap.
To his credit, Perez didn’t buckle once Verstappen was the next car chasing and managed the five-second gap he had built up phenomenally to secure his opening win of 2023. The ex-McLaren driver was not to blame for the failings of the sister car either and did everything he was expected to do.
Despite recovering 13 places and rounding out a team 1-2, Verstappen was unhappy with the outcome of the weekend. Although ex-F1 champion Nico Rosberg slammed him for a perceived level of petulance, Verstappen’s disgruntlement was understandable; the 25-year-old was denied a probable pole position and race win through factors outside of his control.
On the evidence of the race result alone, Perez can be accounted for as a more dependable threat, but Verstappen’s multitude of issues buried the possibility of the chasm between the title-winning Red Bull driver combination being as ominously large as ever.
It spoke resounding volumes that Verstappen, despite starting 15th, was widely nailed on to achieve a podium finish and even well-fancied for a run at the win. After all, Verstappen won from a record seven different starting positions last year: including grid slots of seventh, 10th and 14th within four rounds in an arguably less dominant machine. Such is the strength of the RB19, Perez, meanwhile, would likely be predicted to get a top-three finish but – with Verstappen on pole – you would be hard-pressed to find somebody to predict Perez recovering to emerge on top.
Ultimately, that perception hasn’t emanated without prior confirmation of their respective abilities in the same environment. Since Perez partnered with Verstappen in 2021 the stats have fallen overwhelmingly in the latter’s favour: the former has accrued only four wins compared to Max’s 26.
Furthermore, all four of Perez’s victories in Red Bull colours have stemmed from Verstappen sustaining misfortune: in Azerbaijan ’21 he was cruising to victory until his tyre blew, Monaco ’22 Perez’s crash in qualifying inadvertently denied his team-mate the track position in which to profit from Ferrari’s strategical blunders come race day, while Singapore last year and Saudi Arabia the weekend just gone saw Max hampered in qualifying.
The fact that his quartet of triumphs came at street circuit venues is no coincidence either and represents another concerning factor that heavily weighs against Perez’s championship aspirations.
To fight, let alone win, a World Championship requires an extraordinarily elite level of consistency – something that Perez has failed to maintain. The Mexican racer performs exceptionally on street tracks – which perhaps prevented Verstappen from repeating his Belgium charge from last year – but that won’t yield him a title win against the might of his unrelenting team-mate.
Jos Verstappen, father of Max, commented that Perez was pushing extremely hard around the Jeddah track as he doesn’t often receive an opportunity to win. While the demeanour of the individual in question might render those words controversial, those assertions have substance.
At 33, Perez is unlikely to unlock any further underlying pace or evolve much as a driver. Therefore the version of Perez that is currently seen is the same one that feasibly lacks the killer edge and speed to be champion material, especially when he would have to triumph over an all-time great such as Verstappen in a straight fight.
Even if he has never been viewed as a qualifying specialist in his F1 career – having been beaten by the likes of Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg in years gone by – Verstappen’s advantage in the intra-team battle is as sizable in the races as it is over a single lap.
To give Perez some benefit of the doubt, there has been a clear year-on-year improvement since his move to Red Bull. He has handled the pressure of the step up to a top team better than the two drivers that proceeded him – both mentally and performatively – to prolong his stint long enough to receive a car that openly suits him more this season.
Despite the 2023 season being in its infant stages, Perez already looks like the only competitor who can stop Verstappen from securing a hat trick of titles. The Red Bull RB19 is in a class of one and its advantage has been astronomical to the point Lewis Hamilton, dominator of the V6 turbo-hybrid engine era, claims it’s the fastest car he has ever seen in the sport.
A sharp operator like Verstappen is probably already aware his only consistent rival will be the man with the exact same machinery at his disposal, potentially amplifying his decision to overrule the target lap times issued by the team in his bid to claim the fastest lap. By stealing away that bonus point that his team-mate previously held, Verstappen denied Perez the chance to lead the championship for the first time in his career and debatably land an early blow.
Unlike Perez, Verstappen’s supreme talent and array of accolades automatically command respect, and the Dutch racer can afford to defy the team knowing he won’t be punished. Red Bull experienced a similar scenario when Vettel allegedly ruled he couldn’t contractually be condemned by the Austrian outfit’s hierarchy in the wake of the controversial Multi 21 saga in 2013.
Perez would be on to the same hiding to nothing as Webber was if he attempts to unsettle the ship at Red Bull; it would represent an unwinnable battle which would only be accentuated further if the heat of a title fight manifested itself. If Red Bull had to choose between the two there wouldn’t exist a world where it doesn’t back Verstappen’s corner. Perez is the outsider that is a stop-gap option, and Verstappen is the in-house, pride-of-place, academy graduate turned decorated multiple-time champion.
Verstappen is ruthless and uncompromising in his strive to win; he will straddle the boundaries of what is acceptable and occasionally overstep it, much like Senna and Schumacher in previous eras.
While he will never accept being second best, Perez is more in the mould of a current-day Rubens Barrichello or a Valtteri Bottas than a Nico Rosberg. A number two, de facto or not, who, on his day, is capable of achieving a strong, eye-catching result, but those days exist few and far between.
With the plethora of circumstances in the first two rounds, we are yet to see the two have a direct shootout in 2023. One can suspect if that comes around at the next round in Australia an exasperated Verstappen will be on a mission to send out a defiant message of intent.
Perez has proven himself to be a suitable fit in a number two capacity, but the Mexican wants to go beyond that and fight for the title. Sadly his ambitious enthusiasm might be dwarfed by his consistency and talent being deficient compared to the generational talent that exists next door at Red Bull.
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