Sitting with the assembled journalists at a high table in Red Bull’s hospitality unit at Zandvoort last Thursday, Sergio Pérez seemed lighter than usual.
Formula One’s summer break does the whole paddock a world of good. For the drivers, it’s the chance to put aside the competitive stresses that come with their territory for a couple of weeks. They can spend less time on planes and more time with their families, friends and loved ones.
The break was important for Pérez. He’d been through a tricky first half of the season. Four races in, Pérez had been tied with Verstappen for wins this year, and the potential for an intra-Red Bull title fight provided an exciting narrative. Upon F1’s return at Zandvoort eight races later, Verstappen was 10-2 up on his teammate (no other team has won a race). Another three days later, he made it 11-2 with a record-equalling ninth straight win. He’s only a few races from clinching a third world title. Pérez’s chances stopped being a talking point months ago, giving way to a focus on his struggles to even qualify inside the top 10.
For a couple of weeks, Pérez could forget about all that. He returned to his native Mexico for the summer break, where he spent a lot of time with his wife and kids, paddle boarding and ignoring the never-ending rumor mill about his future or contractual status on social media. “I was so busy having a good time that I didn’t really listen to all of that,” he said.
Yet once he was back on the track at Zandvoort, there was no escaping the reality of the gulf between him and Verstappen. On Saturday,Verstappen qualified seven places and 1.3 seconds ahead of Pérez, a gap so large that Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called it “odd” and “bizarre.” “Checo is not an idiot,” he said. “We have seen it over these years, Checo is a multiple Grand Prix winner. So I cannot comprehend (it).”
On Sunday, Pérez got back in contention by pitting at the end of the first lap and taking a 14-second lead over Verstappen, who put on intermediates a lap later. But he couldn’t convert it into a proper challenge for victory. Driving the same historically dominant RB19 car, Verstappen was whole seconds per lap faster as he carved into the gap before he pitted a lap earlier for slicks and got the undercut to take a lead that Pérez never threatened.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner thought Verstappen was “simply untouchable” at the moment. “I don’t think there’s any driver on the grid that would be able to achieve what he’s been doing in that car,” he said. “Being his teammate is probably, in some respects, the most unenviable job to have because the barometer is so high.”
The gulf between the Red Bull drivers had certainly grown since the beginning of the season when Pérez managed to go toe-to-toe with Verstappen twice and win. But why?
A question of confidence — and style
Part of it comes down to confidence. Pérez admitted just before the summer break that his crash in the first round of qualifying in Monaco in late May had knocked him a bit, making a mistake on a track where he had won the previous year. He is a street circuit specialist, all but one of his victories coming on those layouts. The Monaco crash sparked the run of six races in a row where he failed to qualify inside the top 10 and left him trying to claw back up the order each grand prix. All the while, Verstappen kept winning.
The missed opportunities are not lost on Pérez. “It hasn’t been easy for me because I know the car’s potential,” he said Thursday at Zandvoort. “Max has been exploiting that, but when you don’t really have that feeling (and) that you know that your car has massive potential, it’s not an easy situation to be in as a driver.”
Pérez had that feeling in the early part of the season, “when things were coming a lot more naturally to me.” By this, he means his comfort and confidence behind the wheel, and how the car matched his driving style.
Naturally, drivers have car characteristics that suit their driving styles better. As the season has gone on and Red Bull have developed the RB19, adding new parts to improve its performance, Pérez has found the car drifting away from his natural way of driving.
“I had to go very deep on my driving style, adapt to it quite a bit, and change it because the car has simply changed,” Pérez said. Although he thought Hungary and Belgium were “a lot better,” they still weren’t where he wanted them to be. It wasn’t as natural as it was at the start of the year.
In recent years, the Red Bull cars have been quite tricky to drive, favoring a sharp, pointy front end that allows for an aggressive turn-in to the corners — something that suits Verstappen’s style. Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon struggled to tame the on-edge characteristics of the Red Bull in their stints at the team, as did Pérez in his first year, 2021. Earlier this year, Verstappen knocked back the suggestion Red Bull’s cars had been designed to suit him in particular, saying he would “always adapt to what I get in the best way possible.”
As the RB19 has been developed, those same characteristics have grown stronger. Pérez cited the “sharpness” as being something he needed to adapt to and that it was “medium and high-speed (corners) that I’ve been struggling with — and that is especially when we had tricky conditions, (it) did take away some of the confidence.”
It was a similar story last year. Pérez said last July he thought the car was “going away from me” as it was developed. When The Athletic asked on Thursday if it was the same thing this year, he replied: “In a way, yes, it happened, it happened again.”
It is also natural for teams to pursue the path of development that makes the car quicker. “At the end of the day, the team is trying to make the fastest car,” Pérez said. “Sometimes the development suits one style better than another. That’s how it works.”
And in this case, it has played toward Verstappen’s strengths, helping him go on this march of victories. But as Pérez has struggled, the scrutiny he has faced has only increased, particularly with Daniel Ricciardo entering the conversation as a potential Red Bull driver for 2025, when Pérez’s contract is up, through his return with AlphaTauri.
Some comments made by Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko over the Dutch Grand Prix weekend also raised question marks about Pérez’s future. Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung quoted him over the weekend as saying “nothing is 100% certain” about Pérez’s contract for 2024. But Horner was adamant after the race at Zandvoort that Pérez would be on the team.
“Checo’s situation for next year is clear: He’s a Red Bull Racing driver, we have an agreement with him,” Horner said.
“Irrelevant of agreements, we’re pleased with the job that he’s doing; you saw his drive today, he was unlucky with the pit lane speed limiter. He’s second in the world championship. He’s the only driver other than Max to have won grands prix this year.
“It’s easy to beat up on him when the barometer is so high on the other side. He will be our driver in 2024.”
Pérez has never done things the easy way in his career. As Horner notes, he’s got a difficult job as Verstappen’s teammate, and the car has been drifting away from his natural driving style, making performances like Jeddah and Baku harder to come by.
The challenge for him now is to dig deep and understand where he can get more out of the car and produce more displays like Spa and the first 60 laps of the race at Zandvoort while ironing out the minor errors that cost him second on Sunday.
(Lead image of Sergio Pérez: Koen van Weel / ANP via Getty Images)