When Red Bull Racing recruited Sergio Pérez from Mexico for 2021, the team went against their usual approach to hiring drivers.
Since the team made its debut in 2005, Red Bull had only recruited a driver from outside its own academy for young drivers once: Mark Webber in 2007.
But after struggling to find a replacement for Daniel Ricciardo, who left the team after 2018, Red Bull turned to Pérez, 31, for this season.
Red Bull had recruited Pierre Gasly from France as Ricciardo’s replacement in 2019, but Gasly only lasted 12 races before Red Bull replaced him with Alexander Albon from Thailand, who finished the 2019 season and returned for 2020. But he struggled to regularly challenge Max Verstappen, the team’s top driver, prompting Red Bull to sign Pérez.
After watching Gasly and Albon struggle, Pérez said he knew the car he would drive at Red Bull was not suitable for all drivers. The team’s cars have traditionally demanded an aggressive driving style similar to Verstappen’s to get the most out of its lead driver. In contrast, Pérez is known for his smooth approach and excellent tire management skills.
“I was aware of the difficulties that the very good drivers have had,” Pérez said in an interview. “I knew I was coming on a particular car that isn’t for everyone, and I was ready to adapt to it.”
Since making his Formula 1 debut in 2011, Pérez has raced for smaller teams including Sauber and Racing Point, neither of which have a lead car. In around 200 Grands Prix, he has only two wins. Joining Red Bull was his first opportunity to race for a team that regularly fights for the championships.
It only took six races for Pérez, also known by his nickname, Checo, to secure his first victory, in Azerbaijan, for Red Bull. He became the first Red Bull driver other than Verstappen to win a race in over three years.
It was a breakthrough for Pérez, who said he felt “very comfortable with the car” in Azerbaijan and was “able to do things that normally the car would not allow”.
Pérez has scored 108 points this season, four more than Albon in 2020. Verstappen has won seven races and has 224.5 points, which puts him in the lead, ahead of defending champion Lewis Hamilton of England. The gap left Pérez hungry for better results.
“I am not satisfied because I want more,” he said. “I expected better, to be able to adapt to the car.
“But I’m not giving up. I work very hard with the engineers to try to find the right direction, to make sure I know what the car needs and to be able to perform Azerbaijan’s performance every weekend.
Pérez’s performance was enough to persuade Red Bull to extend his contract. The team announced at the end of August that he would stay for 2022.
“It’s good for everyone to sort this out early enough so everyone is ready for the second half of the season,” said Christian Horner, team manager. “He’s getting more and more familiar with the car. It will improve naturally. He had bad luck on race days.
This year, Pérez will play a big role for Red Bull in their attempt to win a first constructors’ championship since 2013. Mercedes has won the title every year since, but only leads Red Bull by 12 points.
“Sergio deserves this seat, there is no doubt about it,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes team manager. “When you look at Baku” – referring to the race in Azerbaijan – “he collected the points, he won the race and he got to know the car.”
Wolff added that because of Pérez, “the constructors ‘championship has become as difficult and challenging as the drivers’ championship” for Mercedes.
Pérez might not be in contention for the drivers’ title, but he can still play an important role in helping Verstappen. This was evident during the French Grand Prix in June, when Pérez pulled away and let his fastest teammate pass him after a change in strategy left Verstappen behind.
This teamwork saved Verstappen a few seconds that would normally have been wasted when he struggled to overtake another car. It was essential when Verstappen made the winning pass over Hamilton with one lap to lose.
“He has been a very good teammate,” said Verstappen. “Checo is a very nice guy, and it’s really nice to work with him, so on that side everything is going very well.
“France was a great race for the whole team. We just have to keep pushing as a team to deliver a competitive car, and I’m sure we can both do a good job.
Horner said Pérez’s integration with the team had been “seamless”. He also impressed Red Bull’s engine supplier Honda, who said Pérez made a big contribution to the engine’s development.
“Checo gave us a lot of suggestions on how to improve the powertrain,” said Toyoharu Tanabe, Honda technical director in Formula 1.
“He has a lot of questions,” Tanabe said. “So it works very well, to improve the performance of our engine. I think with Checo we become stronger as a team.
Pérez said 2022 would be a “huge opportunity” for him. The cars are set for a significant change in aerodynamic design for next season, which should make the Red Bull car easier to drive.
“Next year everyone is starting from scratch,” he said. “It’s no secret that I sometimes struggled with the car. It will be such a different concept of a car. With my experience, there is a lot that I can influence and that I can bring to. the team.
For the remainder of the year, Pérez said he still had “a lot of work to do” to help Red Bull fight for both championships. On a personal level, he would love to win his home Grand Prix in Mexico City on November 7.
“To win in Mexico would be something incredible,” he said. “Giving victory to my country would be very special. This is what we live and dream of every day, and what we work hard for. “