Sergio Perez won his first Red Bull race a year ago at the Baku circuit, which he will return to this weekend after winning his second Red Bull race two weeks ago in Monaco.
Baku 2021 was the foundation for such a level of success. This was the first race in which he showed he could fulfil the role of Verstappen’s support. He was there to pick up the pieces when Verstappen’s tyre blew when in a commanding lead.
He’s soaring right now, a potential world championship candidate in theory at least, in third place only 15 points behind teammate Max Verstappen, less than a tenth slower in qualifying on average this season, with a pole and a win already under his belt after only seven races.
Prior to that, he had overcut himself past early leader Lewis Hamilton at the pit stops, so demoting Verstappen’s key rival. He then proceeded to hold off Hamilton as Verstappen eased away without having to give his fresh tyres a hard time.
The aggressively pointy cars Red Bull produced during that time – influenced by Verstappen’s ability to happily live with the rear instability that brought – ensured that whoever got into the second seat was struggling to get anywhere near Verstappen’s pace.
Neither of the Red Bull’s junior graduates Pierre Gasly nor Alex Albon had regularly been able to do that in their time in the second Red Bull seat in 2019 and ’20.
Initially, this was the case with Perez too. Baku, round six last year, was the first time that Verstappen could benefit from Perez delaying his rivals. Prior to that, Verstappen had been fighting pretty much on his own on race days, with Perez invariably too far back to compromise the strategy of the Mercedes drivers.
But Perez has always flown around the Azerbaijan street track – he qualified second-fastest here (pre gearbox penalty) in a Force India in 2016 – and that seemed to feed his breakthrough with the Red Bull last year.
Thereafter, he was usually effective support to the lead car, engaging the Mercs in battle in France, being close enough to Hamilton in Austria and Turkey to prevent Mercedes switching his strategy, applying undercut pressure to Hamilton in Austin to keep him off Verstappen’s back, engaging Hamilton in battle for second in Mexico as Verstappen won, delaying the advancing Hamilton in Brazil and spectacularly doing so in the Abu Dhabi finale, enabling Verstappen to get back on terms with the Mercedes. Only at Silverstone, Monza, Sochi and Qatar was Perez unable to help Verstappen’s races.
In 2019/20, Albon had only been able to perform that support role twice and Gasly not at all. Perez, with his experience and standing, was able to grind out some respectable performances despite his similar unease with the handling traits of the car. It was this which won Perez his 2022 extension with the team. But if he was often the perfect support driver last year, with the 2022 Red Bull RB18 – a far more stable, understeery sort of car – he has advanced yet further and given the team some headaches as a result. In a car with which he’s entirely at ease, he’s way closer to Verstappen in speed than last year and twice (Jeddah and Monaco) he has even outqualified him.
At Barcelona, he was required to assist Verstappen’s strategy by letting him past (twice), to the detriment of his own race. At Monaco, by qualifying ahead and running ahead in the race, he was able to get onto the race-winning strategy denied to Verstappen. These were the circumstances behind Jos Verstappen’s critical comments of the team post-race. Beginning last year unable to support Verstappen, Perez was supporting him consistently from mid-season and has now progressed to challenging him. And now we head to perhaps his best track…
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