After Sergio Perez recorded his fifth career podium at last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the question remains as to whether the Mexican is one of the most underrated drivers in the current crop.
Having qualified seventh in Russia, Perez looked set to rack up some more valuable points for his Force India team. Yet, after his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg crashed out on Lap 1, Perez dived into the pits during the race’s second safety car period to make what would prove to be his one and only stop.
After his competitors came in midway through the race, Perez found himself running third with Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen closing in. His defence was rigid, but he could ultimately offer little resistance as the pair slipped past through Turns 13 and 14 in the dying stages. It looked as if he would have to be content with fifth before Raikkonen went for an optimistic lunge down the inside of his compatriot at Turn 4 on the penultimate lap, handing the Mexican the final podium place as Bottas slid into the barriers and Raikkonen hobbled home.
Whilst Force India of course deserve credit for the substantial step forward brought about by the introduction of their B-Spec challenger, it was Perez — as in Bahrain last year — who earned the podium that they so desperately craved before the season began. It was a superb performance by the 25-year old, and a result that was greeted with delight by Checo’s growing fan-base.
Grabbing headlines at Sauber
It’s easy to forget how it all started for Perez. He made his F1 debut for Sauber at the 2011 Australian Grand Prix, but would have to wait 12 months before he could establish himself as a star of the future. It was a solid, if unspectacular, rookie year for the Mexican, who claimed a best result of seventh over the 19-race campaign. It was the 2012 season, however, when he truly shone in a much more competitive car.
But for a costly error at the penultimate corner in the closing stages of the race, Perez would likely have claimed his first Grand Prix win in Malaysia as he hunted down eventual victor Fernando Alonso. He finished a sensational second at Sepang nevertheless, and would then score further podiums in Montreal and Monza, ultimately finishing 10th in the championship on 66 points — a tally which was not representative of his scintillating speed as he failed to finish three of the last six races.
His performances earned him a promotion to McLaren, where he was faced with the substantial task of filling the void left by the Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton.
THAT year at McLaren
In stark contrast to a superb 2012 season, Perez endured a hugely frustrating 12 months at McLaren. It is, perhaps, this difficult campaign which has unfairly marred the Mexican’s reputation. The Woking outfit themselves had performed well in 2012, and could possibly have challenged for the title but for a bout of unreliability. Expectations were high heading into 2013, yet they failed to deliver as they fell away from the front of the field (and have yet to return).
Perez may not have been at his best, maybe feeling the pressure of racing for one of the sport’s biggest teams, but still performed solidly. His best result was an uninspiring fifth at the Indian Grand Prix, and he wound up 11th in the standings; 24 points down on team-mate Jenson Button. Whilst there were some positive signs, as Perez occasionally proved too hot for his World Champion team-mate to handle, McLaren dropped him for the 2014 season in favour of their protégé Kevin Magnussen.
The battle with Hülkenberg
Nico Hülkenberg, Perez’s current team-mate, is without doubt one of the most highly-rated drivers out there. The German has been denied a number of opportunities to graduate to a race-winning outfit, to the disappointment of many fans. Hülkenberg, now a Le Mans winner, is so often the recipient of great praise, yet perhaps his counterpart is worthy of similar acclaim.
Hülkenberg has been the quicker of the two on a Saturday, leading his opposite number 10-5 in the qualifying stakes. It is a different story on a Sunday, however, with the pair locked at 5-5 on the 10 occasions when both have finished the race. Crucially, though, the ‘Hulk’ has yet to claim that elusive maiden podium, while Perez has twice finished in the top three for the midfield runners, having also recorded a rostrum in Bahrain last year. In short, Perez has proven more than a match for Hülkenberg so far this year and is surely worthy of an equally glittering reputation.
What the future holds
At the age of just 25, Perez’s hopes of becoming a future world champion are far from foolish. In the immediate, he will remain at Force India for a third year in 2016 and do battle with Hulkenberg yet again. Should the Silverstone outfit carry the momentum from what is expected to be an impressive finish to the campaign into next year, hopefully free of the financial concerns which hampered heading into 2015, more podiums could well be on offer.
With Kimi Raikkonen set to leave Ferrari at the end of next year, there will almost certainly be a vacancy at Maranello for the 2017 season. A few more brilliant results, and the Mexican may catch the eyes of the Italian marque. He’ll have a lot of work to do before then, but Sergio Perez could yet be a Formula 1 Champion.
Main Photo: BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN – APRIL 17: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India drives during practice for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 17, 2015 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)