While one Red Bull driver is streaking ahead, the other is slipping behind

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What’s the toughest job in Formula 1? There are many candidates but ‘Max Verstappen’s team mate’ has to be among them.

Sergio Perez has the unenviable task of going up against one of the brightest talents in the sport. It’s a role he arrived at after nearly being forced out of the competition in 2020.

Having signed a three-year deal with Racing Point, Perez was cast out two years early to make way for Sebastian Vettel. Then, after the final race of that year, Perez was handed a lifeline at Red Bull.

But it came with the price of being measured against arguably the best in the business. This season Perez has found himself increasingly falling by wayside as his team mate hurtles towards a second world championship title.

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
Perez joined Red Bull after breakthrough Bahrain win
Perez arrived in F1 with the backing of the Ferrari Driver Academy. He parted with them at the end of 2012 when, after his first two seasons at Sauber, he joined McLaren. But his 2013 season disappointed, up against 2009 world champion Jenson Button, and Perez was soon on the move again, to Force India.

That proved the beginning of a long spell at the team until it was taken over by Lawrence Stroll, in a deal brought about partly at Perez’s instigation when it hit financial trouble in 2018. But despite inking a new deal with the rebranded Racing Point team, he was pushed aside in 2020.

Swooping in to sign him, Red Bull placed Perez in their line-up last season. He took one win for them in Azerbaijan and four further podium finishes to put himself fourth in the drivers’ championship.

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Early in the season Perez learned he would be entrusted for a second year. His 2022 campaign began strongly.

Year two at Red Bull started well for Perez
He ticked off his first career pole position in the second round of the season at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, though the timing of a Safety Car period spoiled his race. He took an impressive win at a damp Monaco after being put under immense pressure by the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jnr over the final laps.

Prior to that Red Bull had already announced a contract extension for Perez – significantly, a multi-year one.

“For us, holding onto his pace, race craft and experience was a no-brainer and we are delighted that Checo will continue to race for the team until 2024,” stated team principal Christian Horner at the time. “In partnership with Max, we believe we have a driver pairing that can bring us the biggest prizes in F1.”

Horner had a fair point. In 2021 Verstappen won a fierce championship battle with Lewis Hamilton, whose team mate Valtteri Bottas struggled to be the perfect wingman, notably in the controversial finale. Thanks in part to Perez, Red Bull took a driver to the championship for the first time since Vettel in 2013.

But since his promising start to 2022, Perez has increasingly slipped behind his team mate. He has failed to reach Q3 three times compared to Verstappen’s 100% record, and currently sits 109 points behind the other Red Bull driver in third place in the standings.

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Including Friday sprint qualifying sessions, Verstappen has also out-qualified Perez 12 to 3 – the latter coming out ahead in Baku, Jeddah and Monaco. At Spa Perez was almost eight-tenths of a second slower than his team mate, and he took the chequered flag 17.8 seconds behind.

(L to R): Max Verstappen, Red Bull; Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Spa-Francorchamps, 2022
Perez couldn’t contain flying Verstappen at Spa
Afterwards Perez said he needed “to do everything I can from my side,” in order to “make sure I understand why this was different there and what I need to do differently and how I can exploit more out of the car.”

“At the end of the day, I also have a championship goal to go for and I race to do so,” he added. “Every weekend is an opportunity.”

However he said he wasn’t concerned by the scale of his deficit at Spa. “I think if you have a bad weekend and your team mate has a good weekend normally, that sort of gap, we’ve seen it with other team mates.”

Verstappen’s margin over his team mate was all the more impressive given he started 14th before carving his way through the field. “He was super-fast,” Perez admitted, “really strong.” Horner said Verstappen was “quite simply in a league of his own” when asked how Perez’s performance stacked up next to him.

Perez’s contract extension earlier this year left Red Bull-backed drivers Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda with no route to step up from junior team AlphaTauri until 2025 at the earliest. But Horner gave an interesting insight into his expectations of Perez’s future career direction around the same time.

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Speaking to The Cambridge Union Society in June, Horner explained his thinking behind the deal “Taking up that option on Sergio for the next couple of years it locks out the seat unless he absolutely doesn’t deliver, for whatever reason, in 2023 or beginning of ’24, for example,” he said. “So for somebody like Pierre Gasly, that’s incredibly frustrating, because it’s locked out that seat.

Webber bowed out of F1 after Vettel scrap
“But what we’ll do is try and obviously assist them to keep them in Formula 1 so that we still have the ability to look at their talent, see how that’s emerging. Because Sergio, he’s not getting any younger. He’s 32 years of age now and it may well be the last contract that he signs.”

There is no suggestion that Perez is past his prime, but given Verstappen’s obvious ability he was always going to have a fight on his hands going up against him at Red Bull. Is Perez now doomed to the role of ‘perfect number two driver’, a position no one ever wants to be in?

This is a situation we’ve seen before at Red Bull. From 2009 to 2013 the more experienced Mark Webber went up against the younger Vettel, who reeled off title after title. The partnership produced fireworks at times and ended when Webber headed into retirement.

Of course this story may end differently. Might Perez recapture the performance he had at the start of the season and get back on competitive terms with a driver seven years his junior? And if he does so, would that jeopardise the current harmony at Red Bull?

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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31 comments on “While one Red Bull driver is streaking ahead, the other is slipping behind”

  1. Times like these you kind of wish Max had a bit more of a competitive driver on the other side of the garage. Unless they change Max’s team mate, then good luck to the rest of the grid.

    1. @johns23 But Verstappen always had a competitive driver on the other side of the garage. First with Ricciardo, but Gasly, Albon and Perez all have proven to be very competitive drivers, just not in a Red Bull car. For several reasons it is very difficult to be Verstappen’s teammate, with the main reason that Verstappen is really that good. Other factors might be a very difficult car to drive (fast) and Verstappen being a very dominant force within the team. The situation at Red Bull to me is very reminiscent of the situation that many teammates from Schumacher, Alonso and Hamilton were in.

      Many of us often complain that successes in F1 are mostly down to the car and not the driver himself. Let’s just be grateful that when push comes to shove, it is indeed the driver that makes the difference and that we are lucky to witness so many great drivers competing at the same time (not only Verstappen and Hamilton, but also Russell, Norris, Alonso all have proven to be able to excell in difficult situations).

      1. In the last couple of races, where Max was way ahead Sergio, he took advantage of a fresher+higher spec Power Unit and different floor design (https://www.racefans.net/2022/09/01/verstappen-and-perez-to-use-different-floor-designs-for-the-next-few-events/). Someone also speculated the new lighter chassis is already present on Max’s car, while officially being denied.
        I guess if, given the budget cap rules, Red Bull is bringing updates parts just on Max’s car, while Sergio’s car is kept good enough to look after the Constructors Championship…
        Anyway being second driver to Max is not easy for sure.

        1. Checo has a different floor because he wanted to go a different direction with his car.

          He just can’t keep up with Max and that’s no shame at all

      2. Piere Gasly overdrove that scarry unstable RB (even Max had problems with it) his problem was he tried way too hard and crashed a lot losing his faith in himself. Albon i don’t know sometimes he was very good but he has also a lot of day off…

      3. Racing against Max in the same team is probably as hard as racing against Senna or Schumacher in the same team back in the day, not just because they are incredibly fast, but because the team gets behind them. It is an ungrateful job to be in Sergio’s position, because Redbull has a de facto #1, #2 driver policy. For years now, Adrian Newey has been developing the car to suit Max’s style (purposefully or not), at least since the high-rake concept, and that has created a massive gap between Max’s performance and his teammates’ performances. Ricciardo was quite close to him, but Redbull was already leaning towards Max before he left. Then Galsy, Albon, now Perez, they’ve all been struggling with the car first and foremost. They were not able to unleash their full potential, so it is an unfair, unbalanced situation to be in. Max clearly gets preferential treatment and that snowballs to success, whereas the situation for the driver with the short stick snowballs to failure. For the team, it is always a better deal to have a number 1 driver, and a number 2 good enough to make up the points for the constructors’ title and to be an element of strategy for the 1st driver. But for the second driver, it is demoralizing.

  2. Good post & while he’s slightly underperformed recently versus earlier in the season, I’m sure he’ll bounce back.
    Side note, the two-year deal announcement occurred post-Monaco GP weekend but signing by that event.

  3. If Mark Weber didn’t made a mistake when he spin with none around him he would be worldchampion but he wasn’t up to the task mentally.

    1. @macleod GP of Korea 2010?

    2. Mark Webber was, however, very up to then going to the friendly press and trying to force Red Bull to slow down his faster colleague and invoke team orders to make him World Champion despite Mark throwing his chance away.

      Mark Webber was also up to getting DRS banned outside of specific zones in qualy, because his faster colleague was better at that, too.

    3. @matthijs, @proesterchen – indeed Mark was just not fast enough.

    4. If that was all that was against Webber, he would almost certainly have been champion.
      Unfortunately for him, his own team’s management was against that too.

  4. Surely, even if Perez does get back onto a solid run of pace and closer to Max, there really is no reason to expect him to ever be more than the support driver in the team (unless Max goes away or something like the Schumacher breaking his leg things happens to him)

  5. Electroball76
    8th September 2022, 8:47

    Better to be “a perfect number 2” in F1’s leading team than No.1 in a backmarker team? Only Checo knows that answer for sure.

    1. And Checo knows how close Massa eventually came to become World Champion.

    2. Indeed. And Perez was already contemplating retirement at this point two years ago, but two years later he added two wins and 10 podiums to his tally already. Even though this year is tough, I think that Perez is very grateful for the RB lifeline.

      1. Yes, and at least he could get the answer for himself and for us whether he was an unlucky and overlooked top driver or simply a midfield one, you never know for sure if you never end up at a top team.

    3. He’s not a perfect number 2 though, otherwise he’d be picking up the pieces of GP’s like last week and taking points of Verstappen’s rivals but he doesn’t because he’s too slow. It doesn’t matter this year as Ferrari have gift wrapped the title to Verstappen with their reliability issues and errors but in future it could be crucial.

      1. Indeed, the job of a ‘number 2′ driver is to take points from the main rival of his team-mate. This year, Verstappen has no rival so it’s not a big deal.

        However, let’s assume Leclerc is Verstappen’s main rival. Pérez scored more points than Leclerc 8 races out of 15. Not too bad, but if you look at those 8 races, it was actually Ferrari’s reliability or tactical blunders that caused Leclerc to lose out no fewer than 4 times (Spain, Monaco, England, and Hungary) and Leclerc’s own error in France caused a 5th loss to Pérez. That leaves only Imola, Azerbaijan and Belgium as Pérez’ own ‘wins’, and I doubt it’s controversial to say that Red Bull as a team dominated at least two of those three events.

      2. Red bull had as many reliability issues as ferrari, I’m reading this too often!

    4. Bottas could probably answer that for you – I bet he would take the Mercedes drive any day of the week over his current Alfa seat.

      1. Cronies:
        I don’t think it’s that simple. It will be the correct answer for some, yes. But for Bottas it could be true he is happier at Alfa. It is probably pretty difficult racing beside (…behind) Hamilton. Rosberg bailed, he couldn’t do it anymore even though he actually won.

        1. Because he knew it took a miracle to do so and would only lose if he tried again, he needed the stars to align.

  6. This development will not have come as a surprise to anyone having followed Checo’s career.

  7. Max has the WDC in the bag so maybe he might back off a small amount and RBR might throw some resources at Checo just to secure the WCC by ensuring Checo posts a couple of wins and a heap of second places.

  8. It’s no coincidence they are achieving sucess with the exact same receipt they did 10 years ago.

    And just like perez now, or patrese in 1992 in another newey design, Webber got worse the more the car was refined to suit vettel’s style.

  9. When was the last time ‘looking after your tyres’ was a big thing in races? Thankfully that tedious dimension of Formula 1 has waned with the new car designs but so too the potential for a driver like Perez to play catch up during the race with otherwise faster drivers. I’m starting to wonder why Red Bull even bother with the second car. Aside from points in the constructors championship, it now seems superfluous to requirements. No one even remotely considers Perez a title contender and indeed no one has all season.

  10. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    8th September 2022, 13:45

    Well, so far this season Perez has managed to score 65% of Max’s points. That puts him over the 50% that Gasly and Albon scored so you may argue that it’s remarkable, not terrible.

    The issue is that there’s almost zero threat in qualifying and in the race from Perez.

    1. The issue is that he is coming back to last year’s form. If you only consider the points from Canada on, the first race of his current underwhelming form, it’s much less favourable.

      1. This was actually a problem with albon, he regressed as he went into the second season with verstappen, one would expect them to improve as they get more used to the car.

  11. The problem is not entirely Pérez. He is in a team that designs the car, tunes it and fine tunes it more and more to maxs liking. Its the sad unfortunate reality. Someone wrote something very similar with Wenner amd Vettel. They chose to design the car that Vettel prefers which ultimately dropped Webber back. Same for perez. Not taking away the talent of Max here.

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