A five-step guide to being the ideal F1 wingman: Lessons from Perez, Bottas, more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen acknowledges Sergio Perez on the podium after Red Bull one-two finish. F1 Bahrain, 2023.

Max Verstappen acknowledges Sergio Perez on the podium after Red Bull's one-two finish. Bahrain, 2023.

Nobody grows up wanting to be an F1 wingman. They all dream of winning the title, but in a sport in which there have been just 34 World Champions there comes a point in a driver’s career when reality hits home.

It can be a difficult role to thrive in at times, certainly from a psychological and emotional perspective, but with the opportunity to drive a race-winning car it would be wrong to think of this life as all misery and awkward team radio conversations.

Taking lessons from some of the most prominent number twos of recent times, including Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas, here’s our five-step guide to being the ideal F1 wingman…

Don’t be quick enough to trouble the team leader

If a team’s lead driver is invariably among the elite on the grid a good wingman should ideally rank near the top class of the second class, in the region of three tenths slower on most days.

Some of the most memorable wars in the history of Formula 1 have been waged between two great drivers in identical machinery – see Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost for starters – but it is no coincidence that these inter-team rivalries tend to end in tears.

Although pairings like Prost/Senna are the ones to make the heart leap, such an extreme level of competitive tension is counterproductive to the point of being destructive to the prospects of the team, who usually seek an easier life once the inevitable bitter end has unfolded.

When Prost left McLaren at the end of 1989 in came Gerhard Berger, the man who taught Senna how to laugh.

After Fernando Alonso parted company with McLaren at the end of a stormy 2007 season, the likeable Heikki Kovalainen was chosen as Lewis Hamilton’s new team-mate. Mercedes’ choice to partner Hamilton when his friend-turned-foe Nico Rosberg retired at the end of 2016? Bottas – by common consent the nicest man in F1.

The value of a perfect wingman is found not in what they bring to a team, but the effect of their non-threatening presence on the other side of the garage.

Safe in the knowledge that they have a clear and decisive advantage over their team-mate, the number one can rest easy and focus on optimising their own performance without worrying about first having to overcome the opponent in equal machinery before they can even consider taking on the rest.

By just being Gerhard Berger, he let Ayrton Senna to be Ayrton Senna.

By just being Valtteri Bottas, he let Lewis Hamilton to be Lewis Hamilton.

Be sharp enough to step up when required

As the number one gets on with the business of winning, exploiting the limits of the car at all times, it can sometimes feel like the wingman is left to do his own thing racing for one of the remaining podium positions or a place in the top five.

Yet when the team leader hits trouble, either through error or unreliability, the support act is suddenly thrust centre stage.

This is when the spotlight is at its most intense and it can be a daunting task to take on the responsibility as the team’s only hope, but these are the moments when wingmen are judged by the wider world.

That was the mark of Perez’s victory at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, where he converted pole position into a fine victory after Verstappen fell in Q2 with a driveshaft problem.

See also Baku 2021, where following the dominant Verstappen’s retirement with a tyre failure Perez pressured Hamilton into a mistake at the restart, taking his first victory in Red Bull colours.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when Bottas could only manage a distant third at Silverstone a few weeks later – 11 seconds behind Hamilton in a race in which the race winner had to serve a 10-second time penalty – it crystallised the thought in Mercedes’ mind to look to the future and promote George Russell from Williams.

The role of the F1 wingman is normally associated with qualifying tows and dispiriting radio messages ordering the slower driver to swap positions, but it can take other forms too.

Mark Webber would never have done for Sebastian Vettel what Felipe Massa did for Fernando Alonso at Ferrari, meekly moving aside at Hockenheim 2010 and even agreeing to the team’s request to break his gearbox seal at Austin 2012 to gift Alonso a better grid position, but he helped Vettel in his own way.

In defeating the Ferrari driver to win the British GP in 2012, Webber denied Alonso the seven points that would have made the difference in the tense title fight he ultimately lost by three to Vettel.

That’s the same Webber, remember, who was said to have infuriated Vettel and Red Bull by squeezing him against the pit wall at the start of the Championship decider in Brazil, leading directly to his spin just a few corners later.

Wingmen are not always the obedient lapdog type – they can work in mysterious ways too.

Minimise the off days

At the end of the 2022 campaign, Perez was quick to claim he would have been runner-up in the World Championship if he had a little more help from his friend.

To shine a light on Verstappen’s refusal to assist his cause, however, was to totally ignore Perez’s own contribution to his failure to secure second place in the standings against Charles Leclerc.

At the wheel of a car that won all but five races in 2022, P2 was not lost when Verstappen refused to swap positions with Perez in Brazil.

It was lost in the disappearing act Perez performed in the middle of the season, when after his victory in Monaco he finished on the podium just three times in the next nine races – a run including a trio of Q2 exits in Canada, Austria and Hungary.

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There is nothing more damaging to a wingman’s standing than a prolonged period of underperformance – particularly when, as in this case, the team leader is just beginning to realise the car’s true potential – leaving them halfway down the field and unable to perform the very support role they were signed to carry out.

Ballooning qualifying gaps combined with humiliating qualifying eliminations invite intense scrutiny and trigger suggestions that others could do a better job – even if, in the case of a wingman, the normal rules do not apply.

A gap of 0.8s to Verstappen in qualifying, for instance, does not matter so much if Perez is still within reach of the podium on Sunday.

There is a reason why certain drivers are cast as the wingman and not the star attraction, a lack of natural ability and consistency preventing them from joining the elite.

The trick, then, is to conceal weaknesses as often as possible while drawing on one’s strengths.

Don’t moan to the media or make waves within the team

Put yourself in Perez’s shoes and it is easy to understand why he has become so resistant to the idea of being Verstappen’s wingman.

No driver on the grid competes with a greater sense of national pride and as the most successful Mexican driver in F1 history – see the hero’s welcome he receives at his home race every year – he drives with the hopes and dreams of a nation on his shoulders every time he leaves the garage.

With a reputation to preserve and a legacy to protect, no wonder he is anxious to avoid seeing his name become synonymous with weakness or to bear the brunt of fans’ frustrations – and the butt of their jokes – as Bottas routinely did in his final years at Mercedes.

In a sport in which each driver must believe they are the best out there – because to admit to anything else is to question the point of their own existence – no man wants to be thought of as a mouse.

Balancing one’s own competitive pride with the wishes of the team is the greatest challenge of the wingman life and it is no surprise this breed of drivers often struggle with the restrictive realities of their role.

Frustration is inevitable, but can be managed provided it does not become a political tool in the media or compromise the overarching ambitions of the team.

It was in this area where Perez let himself down following his early exit from qualifying in Australia, his nod towards an unspecified mechanical problem revealed for what it was when a few hours later Red Bull’s Helmut Marko revealed the car was perfectly healthy.

Deflecting blame and refusing to acknowledge your own mistakes and shortcomings is hardly a wise way to endear yourself to the team.

Never lose sight of how fortunate you are to race a competitive F1 car

Being a wingman in F1 is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

And it takes a certain kind of driver to do it well, having an understated yet crucial influence on individual races and title campaigns.

It would be a fatal mistake, however, for the incumbent to start believing that no other driver could carry out the remit to an equal – or even improved – standard.

As Perez sits on five career wins and counting, his former team-mate Nico Hulkenberg – evenly matched over three seasons at Force India – edges ever closer to 200 grand prix starts without a single podium finish, that question of what might have been stalking his every move.

Perez’s success has come late, but he could so easily have been just another name on F1’s long list of lost talents having faced up to the end of his career less than three years ago.

Left without a seat after being replaced by Sebastian Vettel, he participated in his final race for Racing Point with a ‘farewell’ helmet design – complete with his career statistics and a message of gracias – in Abu Dhabi in 2020.

Only Red Bull’s move to change the habit of a lifetime – signing a driver outside of their own talent pool for the first time since Webber in 2007 – saved Perez’s place on the grid and made his recent achievements possible in one of the few cars capable of winning races.

That alone would normally be enough to inspire devotion for life – you say jump and I say how high – were it not for the unique competitive tension that comes with a dominant car unleashing the animal within.

Following the Red Bull team orders controversy at Interlagos in 2022, one of the most troubling accusations – regularly implied but never confirmed – centred around the suggestion Perez had not only crashed intentionally in Monaco qualifying but openly admitted it to the team’s management.

If that rumour contained even a hint of truth, it revealed a fundamental lack of respect and appreciation for the opportunity offered to him by Red Bull back in December 2020.

The wingman life can doubtless be tough at times – but there are worse fates for a Formula 1 driver.