Sergio Perez has finally been given the chance he deserves and while it took longer than he would have liked, it has come at the perfect time.
Before 2020, Perez had been one of the most consistent drivers on the grid since joining it in 2011, taking eight podiums in midfield machinery and being beaten by a team-mate just three times in nine seasons. Despite this, there were question marks regarding whether he was good enough for a top team.
When it was announced that Sebastian Vettel was to replace him at Racing Point in 2021, he looked destined to retire as little more than a midfield specialist. However, that announcement seemed to awaken something in Checo as, from that point, he raised his game to another level entirely.
In the nine races that followed, he was arguably the best driver on the grid. When he finished, he did so outside the top six only once, which is impressive in itself. What’s more, in the last two of them, he crossed the line in P2 and P1, taking his first victory in what was a stunning charge from the back of the grid.
By the end of the season, he had scored more points than ever, won a race and claimed his highest ever finishing position in the standings. Granted, he had perhaps the strongest F1 car he has ever had, but there is little doubt he is also driving better than ever before.
Often in F1, drivers peak at the wrong time, but for Perez it’s the opposite. His excellent driving has earned him a seat for 2021 in the second-best car on the grid, providing him with his biggest opportunity yet, and he is more prepared than ever to take it.
Getting the better of Max Verstappen is a tall order and the Dutchman is still the favourite to come out on top. However, if Checo can drive as well as he did in 2020, it is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Comparing the two of them, Verstappen is admittedly the stronger when it comes to raw pace and quite comfortably too. Perez, though, is less prone to making mistakes and, perhaps with the exception of Lewis Hamilton, is the best on the grid when it comes to managing his tyres.
What’s more, with his victory in Bahrain and at other races this year, he has proved himself to be one of the best around in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing too.
While he has been made to wait a while for his big break, it really has come at the perfect time for him. 2021 will be the most important season of his career and he could not be in better shape for it.
Alex remains an important member of the Team and takes on the role of Test and Reserve Driver with a key focus on 2022 development 👊 pic.twitter.com/3Ih9cV8jmG
— Aston Martin Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) December 18, 2020
His prospects for 2022 are far from bleak. With Pierre Gasly possibly keen to break away from the Red Bull family, a seat will probably open up at AlphaTauri and if so, Albon would undoubtedly be the favourite to fill it.
With Perez only tied down for a year, there is also the possibility that seat will become available again should the Mexican struggle. In that scenario, the worst case for Albon is that Yuki Tsunoda, whom the team see as their potential next Verstappen, takes it, allowing him to go back to AlphaTauri, and the best case is that he gets it himself.
In the meantime, he will be able to remain an important part of the Red Bull family in his role as a test and reserve driver and will be the first in line to fill in should one of the four drivers miss a race, whether because of COVID-19 or other reasons.
Daniil Kvyat bounced back from being dropped twice by Red Bull to drive two full seasons on the grid, and given the lack of names in Helmut Marko’s talent pool pushing for a place in F1 there is no reason why Albon cannot do the same.
Even so, it is a decision that will undoubtedly hurt his pride, and it will hurt his team’s just as much.
Not since 2007, when Mark Webber joined, have Red Bull signed a driver that has not come through their junior team first, and that is something Helmut Marko has taken pride in.
Ultimately though, their hand was forced, not only by the struggles of Gasly and Albon but also by the strength of their rivals. 2022 will provide the biggest opportunity in a long time for them to challenge Mercedes and it is one they have to give themselves the best possible chance of taking.
By signing Perez for a year and keeping Albon around they have done so, leaving themselves as many options as possible. If Checo struggles, they can get one of their own back in the car, whether it be Albon or Tsunoda. If he does well, they will keep him and have a line-up more than capable of challenging the German team should they have the car.
Given how good he looked in 2020, it could end up going down in history as the move that ultimately brought an end to the Silver Arrows’ reign of terror.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Either way, we are absolutely fascinated to see how this plays out.