Damon Hill, the 1996 F1 World Champion, believes Red Bull are “desperate” to have a solid wingman alongside Max Verstappen after Sergio Perez’s struggles continued at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Red Bull clinched the 2023 Constructors’ title at Suzuka as Verstappen stormed to his 13th victory of the season, yet it was a different story on the other side of the garage.
After suffering front-wing damage in a start-line collision, Perez incurred two separate five-second penalties – the second for a late lunge on Kevin Magnussen’s Haas at the hairpin as he attempted to recover through the field – before retiring long before the chequered flag.
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Despite winning two of the opening four races of 2023 in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, Perez’s seat at Red Bull has come under severe scrutiny in recent months following a mid-season implosion – including a run of five rounds without a Q3 appearance between Monaco and Silverstone.
Red Bull appeared to ease the pressure on Perez at Suzuka by announcing that Verstappen’s former team-mate Daniel Ricciardo – currently recovering from a broken hand sustained in a practice crash at Zandvoort last month – will remain at AlphaTauri alongside Yuki Tsunoda for 2024.
However, Perez’s latest wretched weekend has reopened the debate about his future, sparking suggestions that Red Bull may be minded to make a change for next season despite the Mexican holding a contract until the end of 2024.
Appearing on the F1 Nation podcast, Hill fears Perez is struggling to cope with the pressures of partnering a talent like Verstappen, who can secure his third consecutive World Championship with a sixth-placed finish in the Qatar GP sprint race next time out.
He said: “Something went wrong and he then got into trouble in the first corner. And then I think a little bit of frustration did creep in and it got worse and worse.
“The thing on Magnussen was really desperation and he was perhaps a little bit annoyed with being where he was.”
Put to him that Perez cannot afford to perform like this if Red Bull face a tougher challenge from rival teams next season, Hill replied: “No, he can’t.
“I think the team desperately wants a little bit more of a wingman for Max. They know that Max is almost untouchable.
“Do you remember when Michael Schumacher dominated Ferrari and nobody could cope with being number two to Michael? I remember Ross Brawn saying to Eddie Irvine, ‘Listen, you can’t beat him. You just do the best you can,’ which is anathema to a racing driver to hear that.
“But you’re going to meet someone in this game who is exceptional and probably above your ability unless you are [Ayrton] Senna, [Lewis] Hamilton, Max Verstappen and the rest of the greats [including Juan Manuel] Fangio, Jim Clark.
“There are these people who are just so difficult to beat. All you can do is get close and do a good job for the team.”
With Red Bull reserve driver Liam Lawson currently without a permanent seat for 2024 despite impressing for AlphaTauri in Ricciardo’s absence over the last four races, it cannot be ruled out that the team may choose to promote the 21-year-old New Zealander as Perez’s replacement.
Red Bull have a history of fast-tracking young drivers to the main team, having promoted Alex Albon after just 12 races of his rookie campaign in 2019.
However, Albon struggled for pace alongside Verstappen and was demoted to a reserve role at the end of the following season having scored just two podium finishes.
Red Bull have also long been linked with a move for McLaren driver Lando Norris, who claimed the 10th podium finish of his career in Japan.
Although he has a contract in place with McLaren until the end of 2025, Norris appeared open to the possibility of becoming Verstappen’s team-mate when asked at the recent Italian GP.
“It’s definitely something I would be open to in the future. I think I can happily say that Max is probably one of the best drivers ever in the history of Formula 1,” he told media including PlanetF1.com.
“I never raced against him until I was into Formula 1 but I was always in the category below. In karting, I already knew him reasonably well.
“I think it’d be great to work alongside someone like that and, at the same time, see where I can really stand against him. I’d be open for it.”