Mexican stand-off: Sergio Perez's predicament

Going through the 2019 Formula 1 grid you can assign most of the 20 drivers to a typology. You have the top-drawer talents: Lewis Hamilton; Sebastian Vettel; Max Verstappen; Daniel Ricciardo. You then have what one might term the slightly lower order, safe-pair-of-hands sort: Kimi Raikkonen; Valtteri Bottas; Romain Grosjean.

You have the promising up and comers: Charles Leclerc; Pierre Gasly; Antonio Giovanazzi; the three British debutants. Then of course you have pay drivers, though this year it’s a status largely confined to Lance Stroll.

You have Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz who rather straddle more than one category. They share elements of the up and comer in that we await to see what they’d do in a top car, though it’s not yet clear were they to get that opportunity if they would fall into the top or the second drawer. Robert Kubica’s not dissimilar either in that we wait to see how much of his pre-rally accident potency he retains. Kevin Magnussen also these days floats somewhere between the second order and up and comer groupings (as well as, whisper it, has a touch of pay driver).

Then you have Daniil Kvyat who rather defies allocation. Once upon a time he was quite the up and comer but he has been round the houses since, though the Red Bull collective for reasons that aren’t always clear to the outsider insists on offering him more comebacks than Frank Sinatra.

Which leaves one. Sergio Perez. He defies allocation about as much as Kvyat, and for reasons which if anything are even less clear. Just where exactly does he fit? And why?

It’s not as if we haven’t had time to make our minds up. In something that will make a lot of us feel old, this forthcoming season will be Perez’s number nine in F1.

On the face of it Perez has plenty going for him. Since the start of 2016 – loosely when Williams dropped off and the ‘big three’ teams established themselves as way ahead of the rest – there have been only five occasions on which a driver from outside the big three squads has finished on the podium. And three of them have been Sergio Perez. In his latest – in Baku last year – he even did something considered unthinkable for one from ‘Class B’ and passed Vettel’s Ferrari for the place late on.

Sergio Perez. Just where exactly does he fit? And why?

It’s not an outlier either. Since debuting Perez has no fewer than eight podium finishes despite having cars no better than for the bottom end of the top 10 all being equal. Compare that say to Nico Hulkenberg who with a similar predicament and timescale still awaits his first top three result. And while of course one can pinpoint an element of luck in some of Perez’s elevated finishes – that podium opportunities for the ‘the rest’ are so rare means there will inevitably be chance involved – the extreme regularity with which it’s Perez who steps up to seize the opportunity means it simply cannot be down only to chance.

It’s not just about podiums either. Perez has outscored highly-rated Esteban Ocon as team-mates in both of his last two seasons, and did the same with the about as highly-rated Hulkenberg in both of the two seasons before that.

And yet. Us watching on have become oddly desensitised to it all. We seem to react with a ‘ho-hum’. That’s if we react at all. And Perez therefore remains where he is, literally and figuratively. He is about to start his sixth season with the same Force India/Racing Point team; his reputation is much as it always was. While Ocon and Hulkenberg’s reputations by contrast glow – one is in a works squad seat and the other is thought in prime position for the most prized seat of all.

And the man himself has noticed. “It’s like people just get used to me,” Perez noted recently. “When I was new here, everyone was talking about me and I was the next big thing, as Esteban is right now.

“Last year [2017] I was best of the rest, I’ve been beating all my team-mates I’ve had. So results in the end talk more than what people say.”

He might be onto something. If we return to the concept of typologies, Perez since his ditching by McLaren at the end of 2013 has existed in an odd F1 equivalent of purgatory – somewhere in the middle ground between a ‘top drawer’ talent that we outlined and a good midfielder (who as a nice bonus brings some cash). Underlining the point midfield squads have very much coveted him in this time – in addition to his Force India abode, Renault and Williams have in the past been rumoured repeatedly to have been courting him. It’s reckoned he’s more than once turned Renault down. But equally virtually never in that time has Perez been linked with a ‘big three’ ride.

And in the past year or so it seems his prospects have narrowed even further. The many ‘who goes where’ articles about the 2019 drivers’ market were close to unanimous on him. That he’s a man who’s had his chance and is not in line for promotion. “It’s looking increasingly likely that Sergio Perez’s big opportunity to drive for a top team has passed him by,” said ESPN’s for one, appositely. And this even in a driver market of almost unprecedented flux; only two of the 10 squads have unchanged line-ups for 2019 and no fewer than 12 of the 20 drivers on the Melbourne grid in March will be in a new seat.

It’s like people just get used to me. When I was new here, everyone was talking about me and I was the next big thing, as Esteban [Ocon] is right now. Last year [2017] I was best of the rest, I’ve been beating all my team-mates I’ve had - Sergio Perez

Doubtless part of it is that Perez as intimated has already got his big break and didn’t make good on it. He was brought in, likely hastily, as Hamilton’s replacement at McLaren for 2013. It didn’t help that it was at precisely the wrong moment as that was the year in which McLaren fell from its front-running perch. Yet even allowing for this Perez struggled – a late mini-upturn made his year look more respectable in the final count but as late as after 15 of the 19 rounds he had fewer points than Adrian Sutil and barely more than a third of his team-mate Jenson Button’s (23 vs. 60). And, plenty murmured at the time, this was a Button not quite at his top pitch now that Hamilton was off his case. Perez, hardly helping, put a few noses out of joint along the way too.

Getting one break in a top F1 team is rare enough particularly in the modern era where prize seats are few, driving careers are long and test opportunities nearly non-existent. For the prospect of getting two breaks you can multiply the rarity. Further in F1 definitive evidence of a drivers’ singular contribution can be hard to come by – was it the car? The circumstances? So with this the fraternity seems determined not to disregard what little evidence it does get. Like mountain goats they must make meagre sustenance last a long time.

And that he’s been there before bolsters the case against him. Others have the benefit of mystery and by extension of (possible) potential. Ocon and Hulkenberg might just prove to be the top drawer sort mentioned, so better to take your chances with them. Perez in all probability won’t.

Perez’s skillset feeds into the sense too. That perhaps it lacks high peaks; akin to – said with the greatest of respect – a slightly lower-level Fernando Alonso in that he does not have an obvious weakness, instead he’s an eight out of ten at everything. And away from the frontrunners we tend to notice the whizz-bang more than incessant resolute delivery.

“The Mexican remains a truly formidable force,” said Mark Hughes of Perez when rating drivers at the end of 2018, “not the very fastest guy out there but strong in every single supporting quality.

Perez has existed in an odd F1 equivalent of purgatory – somewhere in the middle ground between a ‘top drawer’ talent and a good midfielder

“Great racecraft (he’s terrific on first laps), fantastic with the tyres, totally uncompromising wheel-to-wheel, a great understanding of the dynamics of a race from the cockpit.”

In Perez’s defence he finished that McLaren season 10-9 up on Button in qualifying, and it’s ironic that in the year just passed people cite Ocon shading Perez in qualifying as evidence of the Frenchman’s greater potential despite Perez being the more likely points scorer… It’s ironic too that it’s thought Perez got the McLaren break on the sort of basis that we suspect others are getting the nod over him now – that in 2012 people noticed his ‘high peaks’ rather than the more broad canvas across a season, on the basis of which he was less impressive.

Which leads us neatly to something else going on. With Perez there always seems a sense of those watching on determinedly looking for mitigating circumstances to undermine his claims. He had three scarcely credible podium runs in 2012 but they were roundly attributed to his Sauber’s peculiar gentle touch on the peculiar Pirelli tyres, combined with in two of the cases him being on a different strategy to those ahead. Similar went for him beating Hulkenberg in the same equipment at Force India; many reckoned it reflected gumball Pirellis at odds with the German’s driving style.

Last year plenty in their end of year assessments pointed at the overwhelming quali match-up win to Ocon – 16 to 5 – as the clinching proof of the lay of the land (though as Perez also pointed out the average time gap was much closer than that topline score indicates). A few even added that the points difference could be explained away by that at Baku when Perez got on the podium Ocon crashed out on lap one.

But you wonder, just as we have concluded with his frequent podiums, that the evidence in Perez’s favour has accumulated to a point that it simply cannot be chance. That Perez must be doing something right.

The Mexican remains a truly formidable force, not the very fastest guy out there but strong in every single supporting quality - Mark Hughes

Perhaps Perez’s status as a pay driver – he brings a fair whack of cash from sponsors – adds to this. I’ve heard it said that Magnussen for one also brings a whack of money but likes to keep the fact quiet outwardly for fear that a ‘pay driver’ status will harm how he is viewed. Early in his F1 career too, as also intimated, some murmured that Perez was variously ‘difficult’ or ‘arrogant’. Those close to him such as Jo Ramirez insisted such a view maligned Perez, that instead it reflected his confidence and assurance. But maybe it contributed to a paddock determined to think ill of him.

Occasional, and notorious, hot-headedness will not have helped here either. In 2017 he had frequent run-ins with team-mate Ocon – and often came across as the villain of the piece. At Singapore last season he again at least showed not all that much mind to avoid his stable-mate and then, much worse, later in the same race had a conspicuous rage swipe at Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams. Hughes for one thought it worthy of a race ban.

Thus the explanation of Perez’s predicament is like those of a lot of things in life. Not down to one thing, rather lots of things coming together. But, whatever is the case, in more than one sense it’s hard to see him going anywhere any time soon.