Sergio Perez hoped that a welcome return home would inspire relief from his ongoing rut in Formula 1 – but the Mexico City Grand Prix only served to ramp up the pressure and provided possibly the greatest indication yet that time is potentially already ticking on his Red Bull stint.
Despite once again trailing a distant way behind team-mate Max Verstappen in the United States Grand Prix the weekend before, Perez was buoyed by his fifth-place finish, promoted to fourth when Lewis Hamilton – who crossed the line second – was disqualified for a technical infringement.
The Mexican had been on a torrid run before F1’s annual visit to Austin, only accruing five points in the past three race weekends, admitting he had become “lost” in the RB19.
However, an extensive three-day run in Red Bull’s simulator back at its Milton Keynes base and detailed analysis with his group of engineers culminated in a much improved showing at the Circuit of the Americas.
But Perez’s run Stateside was hindered somewhat by the interruption of the Sprint format only allocating all competitors one practice hour before being locked into a less-than-optimal setup direction. Therefore, aside from being greeted by the support of hoards of passionate locals, Perez was enthused by the opportunity to put his behind-the-scenes work into practice upon the sport’s return to its conventional format.
The 33-year-old could only manage fifth in Saturday’s qualifying, but Perez only wound up 0.15s away from Verstappen. Considering his team-mate had developed a trend for being a specialist at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and qualifying isn’t Perez’s strongest asset, it was a tidy effort.
However, Perez’s optimism of translating that into a positive result was destroyed within 890m as an avoidable incident with Charles Leclerc caused extensive damage that curtailed his involvement in the race.
While both Ferraris were sluggish away, the two Red Bulls launched off the line to sandwich Leclerc on the approach to Turn 1. With Verstappen maintaining the high ground on the inside, Perez opted for the open outside space but came to blows with the Ferrari as he swept in, sending his Red Bull car crashing to the ground from the air.
Although Leclerc, who eventually took third, was resoundingly booed by the Mexican fans post-race, Perez rightfully admitted that the Monegasque had been an innocent party. The stewards swiftly determined that neither driver was “wholly or predominantly to blame” for the clash, taking no further action.
Ultimately, in isolation, Perez could be forgiven for attempting the move. He had executed a storming start, utilised the slipstream from the Ferrari ahead and possessed the overspeed necessary to carry such momentum around the outside of his team-mate and Leclerc into the first corner.
But it’s his retrospective comments afterwards that displayed a complete lack of disregard for his situation and warranted severely more criticism than his failed but understandable manoeuvre on the racetrack.
“But at the end of the day, this is just racing. I go very sad home, but I also go very proud of my time or myself. We gave it all. I knew that today, a podium was not enough for me, and I really wanted to go for the win. I saw the gap and I went for it,” Perez explained.
Having endured a miserable campaign that has comprised only two victories and eight Q3 absences in one of the most dominant cars ever assembled, Perez could not afford to place himself in jeopardy that early in proceedings by committing to a dangerous move that wouldn’t have guaranteed the race victory even if he had seized the lead.
Perez had been searching for a breakthrough result that he could use as a stable baseline to rebuild ahead of next year. However, with his all-out attempt to gain supremacy on the first corner of the first lap in Mexico, Perez threw away that mindset to end up with another confidence-denting outcome.
But beyond looking ahead to the future, Perez’s premature elimination could have tremendous repercussions in the short term.
Perez’s wildly fluctuating form has allowed Lewis Hamilton to steadily close up in an ever-improving Mercedes package. The Red Bull representative’s most recent spurned points haul opened the door for Hamilton, who charged through from sixth to claim the runners-up position, to close his deficit to Perez’s second place down to only 20 points.
Having outscored Perez by 72 points to 51 since the summer break, the seven-time World Champion is now on course to be right with Perez by the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton’s own mishap at the start in Qatar, ironically a carbon copy of Perez’s Mexico misjudgement, and subsequent disqualification from second in Texas should have supplied an urgent wake-up call. Perez, it appeared, failed to heed that warning with his first-lap act of desperation on Sunday.
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner has attributed Perez’s dwindling advantage to “misfortune”, but his latest episode was entirely self-inflicted. In Perez’s precarious position where his every move is being monitored intently, that wasn’t a time for the act of a hero, it was a time for consolidation.
He had managed the hard part, acing the launch on a low-grip track surface to mitigate his qualifying troubles. The wise thing to do would have been to accept that going on the outside of a three-wide affair into a tightening corner represented an unnecessary risk that called for margin.
In the worst-case scenario, he would have likely maintained third, leaving him on track for a podium. It might not have been the win he was rooting for, but it would have at least provided respite from the constant media scrutiny he has been privy to and a much-needed morale-boosting result to build on.
Instead, he has now ended up back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
While Horner asserts that Perez “wouldn’t be a racing driver” if he didn’t “go for it”, Perez was in absolutely no position to dictate what step of the rostrum he prioritised that early. The ex-McLaren racer hasn’t appeared on the podium since Italy at the start of September.
A return to the stage overlooking a crowd chanting his name would have been the ideal tonic to ensure he could end the campaign on a more positive note and ease some of the pressure that has been building since his Q1 crash in Monaco back in May. But Perez unwisely let his heart rule his head and chose the option that ended in heartbreak with him parked in the garage, landing another sizeable mental blow to a man who critically needed an uplifting moment.
However, Perez took an element of solace from perceiving that he hadn’t let the Mexican faithful down. “To be honest I would have let them down more if I didn’t go for it if I’m honest. I saw the gap and I went for it. I decided to take a risk, I knew it was going to be very risky, and I ended up paying the price. Yeah. Risk, reward, it was pretty high risk to take, but it was worth taking it.”
Although Horner protected his driver’s view, it’s hard to argue that Perez’s careless act didn’t go against the team’s best interests. Red Bull’s senior hierarchy have repeatedly issued Perez’s objective is to retain second place in the standings, but his preventable mishap means he can ill-afford to slip up again with Hamilton looming large.
Such is the all-conquering dominance of the title-winning RB19, which has been the class leader in every round bar one to date, it should have been a formality for Perez.
Failing to preserve that place would represent a catastrophic failure and would surely make his position within the team untenable beyond his current contract.
Perez’s woes were compounded by Daniel Ricciardo excelling in only his second appearance since returning from the broken bone in his left hand that delayed his comeback spell. The Australian managed to edge his AlphaTauri ahead of Perez in qualifying, converting that into a seventh-place finish that represented the Faenza squad’s best result of the entire season.
Ricciardo had promised that he would get his “elbows out” at the start but with caution, displaying the racing maturity expected of a veteran, multiple-time grand prix winner. By comparison, Perez showcased the spatial awareness associated with a rookie.
With Ricciardo openly adamant that he’s gunning for a return to the Red Bull seat he vacated at the end of 2018, his exploits – branded “remarkable” by Horner – coupled with Perez’s retirement could be a watershed moment if their respective showings in Mexico continue onwards from here.
Perez looks set to be afforded at least one more chance to take glory on home soil with Red Bull in 2024. But, at this stage, it can’t even be guaranteed that the Mexican driver will be behind the wheel of the RB20 this time next year after he wasted a glorious opportunity to cement his status on Sunday.