Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport worldwide and has gained a massive following in recent years even in countries that don’t get to roll out the red carpet for racing; India being one of those countries and this author being one of those followers. This column is my attempt to connect with other new fans of the sport and share with them my journey of exploring this fast, furious, and yes, at times, frustrating, sport.
Prince Louis and Sergio Perez. No, this is not some grand example of the theory of six degrees of separation. I mention the adorable British royal and the most successful Mexican driver in Formula 1 in the same sentence for both had much of the world rooting for them these past few days. And it’s been cathartic to watch since both have been cruelly boxed into the unenviable role of ‘spares’.
All of four, Prince Louis fired up the meme engines by bringing to life the most commonly used emojis on WhatsApp at his great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Less than a thousand miles away in the principality of Monaco, Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez only recently popped the champagne (followed by one wild party it seems) at the top of the podium after winning a rain-hit Grand Prix.
But while four-year-old Louis Arthur Charles’ position in the line of succession is non-negotiable and he may even come to enjoy the duty-free trappings of royal life (just ask Uncle Harry), 32-year-old Sergio Michel “Checo” Pérez Mendoza did not enter Formula 1 to be anyone’s spare.
The pecking order is evident in royal families and apparent in Formula 1. Each team has two drivers and one of them is not as good as the other at any given point, making him the ‘spare’ to the ‘heir’. Race strategies are prioritised to favour the ‘lead driver’, often at the expense of the other. The drama and emotions are unpleasant for everyone, except perhaps the folks at Drive to Survive.
But ever so often, the ‘spare’ makes a break for it. That’s exactly what Perez set out to do in Spain and exultantly accomplished in Monaco. His stunning win declared that he is as much in this title race as the reigning world champion and Red Bull’s golden-eyed boy Max Verstappenand Ferrari’s next-in-line-champion Charles Leclerc, only 15 points and six points apart, respectively.
It was a different story last year when F1 was all about Lewis Hamilton versus Max Verstappen. No amount of heroics from their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas or Sergio Perez could have changed that. And while Bottas managed to claw some glory for himself, Perez understood his assignment.
Perez was to be the Robin to Verstappen’s Batman, a role Daniel Ricciardo said no to at the end of 2018. The Aussie still staunchly defends his decision to move to Renault then despite finding himself in a similar position at McLaren now. From Ricciardo to Pierre Gasly to Alex Albon, Red Bull somehow failed to find the right driver for that second spot to aid in its mission of making Max Verstappen the youngest F1 world champion ever.
Enter Perez in 2021. It was a bit of a dull start but all that changed in Baku when Perez stepped up after a puncture forced Verstappen to retire. Restarting after a red flag, Perez drove brilliantly to notch up his first win for Red Bull and his second overall since starting his F1 career in 2011. The drive in Baku and the delicious wheel-to-wheel action against Hamilton in the Turkish GP reassured Christian Horner & Co. that Perez could support Verstappen’s championship bid. And boy, were they proven right in Abu Dhabi!
Perez held off Hamilton in one of F1’s most dramatic, controversial and tense moments to see Verstappen past the chequered flag. “Legend” is what the newly crowned champion called his partner on team radio, genuine gratitude jostling to be heard over joy in the sheer chaos of the moment. Verstappen really does owe much of his 2021 title to Perez, and to be fair to the Dutchman, has admitted so often.
And now Perez wants his pound of flesh. Because ‘Mexican Minister of Defence’ is really great for social media but Checo didn’t go from Sauber to McLaren to Force India/Racing Point to Red Bull just to end up as the world champion’s wingman. He has a legion of fans to answer to, especially back home in Mexico, and carries the weight of expectations that’s always heavier for a non-White driver; more so if he’s from a non-White country.
Perez here has the chance to break another myth in motorsport, that pay drivers are “unworthy”. Even though multiple world champions like Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher started off as pay drivers, the term still has some hush-hush taboo attached to it. Perez’s Mexican sponsorship currently brings to the Red Bull coffers 20 million euros.
Officially, Red Bull have backed Perez for the crown. “He’s in the championship just as much as Max is,” team boss Christian Horner said after the Monaco GP. But forgive the fans for being sceptical after the Mexican was asked to step aside for Verstappen at the Spanish GP just two weeks ago.
— Ben Greenall (@BenGreenall) May 22, 2022
— F1 Reaction Pictures (@FormulaReaction) May 22, 2022
Perez would have been the championship leader, if not for the team orders in Spain, pain!
— Don’t Yell @ me! (@gbenhur) May 29, 2022
Unpopular opinion: It was too early in the season for Red Bull to implement team orders and ask Perez to let Max through in Barcelona. #TeamOrders
— Michael Cronje (@mnpcronje) May 31, 2022
Christian Horner says that Sergio Perez is in the title fight in 2022.
Had it not been for RBR’s team orders, Perez would’ve had two back to back wins in 2022!
– Kunal Shah (unkunalashah) May 29, 2022
A disgruntled but dutiful Perez gave in with a “that’s really unfair, but OK”. His post-race warning for Red Bull – “I am happy for the team, but we need to speak later” – was enough to convey he wasn’t going to play second fiddle to Verstappen anymore.
Red Bull maintains that asking Perez to make way for Verstappen after the Dutchman dropped to P4 following a slide into the gravel was the right call.
“Max had such a tyre advantage from a team perspective there is just no point in taking that risk with an intermittent DRS, with temperatures raging up and down. So it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Horner told Sky F1.
But given Verstappen’s DRS woes in Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, couldn’t the team have trusted Perez to defend his position? Horner had an answer. “DRS was working intermittently. So it worked one lap not the next.”
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko thinks Verstappen won’t be too bothered about a rival title bid from Perez since the reigning champion is “usually faster”.
“You forget one thing. Verstappen has already missed the finish twice this year. Both times he was in second place. If he had managed to collect those 18 points, his distance to Perez would have been greater. It doesn’t change the fact that Checo is having a great season but still, when it comes to sheer speed, Max is usually the faster of the two,” the Austrian was quoted as saying by Formel1.de this week.
But the question is not whether Perez can beat Verstappen on pace. It’s whether he will be allowed to. “He won Monaco, right?” offered up Marko to Formel1.de.
But the Mexican cannot always count on Carlos Sainz (or George Russel or Lando Norris if you will) to split the two Red Bulls or for Ferrari to have another poor pit call to Leclrec’s dismay. In a series of ‘what ifs’ is another – what if it were Leclerc and not Sainz keeping the two Red Bulls apart? Would Red Bull not have recycled the team orders from Spain for Monaco?
Red Bull may claim it backs Perez for the title as much as Verstapppen, but with an asterisk hanging over his maiden championship after Abu Dhabi’s safety car drama and a rivalry with Leclrec that goes back to their karting days, the Dutchman will get first dibs on team strategy and loyalty.
One man who is already fuming at Red Bull for favouring Perez in Monaco shares his name with the reigning champion. If Verstappenwho retired after 107 races in 2003, insists that the team compromised on his son Max’s points.
“Max was not helped by the chosen strategy. It turned completely to Checo’s favour. That was disappointing to me, and I would have liked it to be different for the championship leader,” he wrote in a blog post on Max’s official website.
“I think 10 points from Max have been thrown away here. Especially with the two retirements we’ve had, we need every point. Don’t forget that Ferrari currently has a better car, especially in qualifying.”
Driver friction is not new to Red Bull and it’s not yet reached that stage yet, but the team will certainly not want to deal with a repeat of Mark Webber versus Sebastian Vettel. As for Perez, it is to Nico Rosberg’s 2016 championship win that he must look when the Mercedes driver won nine of 21 races, beating team darling Lewis Hamilton.
As the Mexican returns to his favourite hunting ground Baku, which for Verstappen is “unfinished business”, each race from here on will be a test of his hunger for the title. Having signed up till the end of 2024, does he oblige or oppose? More importantly, will Red Bull walk the talk?