Sergio Perez was a “Mexican race driver enjoying life” when he joined Red Bull says Helmut Marko, and he still is, just now with a key twist.
Perez delivered arguably the strongest season of his Formula 1 career back in 2020 with Racing Point, but despite winning his first Grand Prix in Sakhir that year, it was looking very much like he would not have a seat for 2021.
That is where Red Bull came in to offer that vital lifeline with a front-running team, and while his journey to reach a level where he can challenge Red Bull’s star driver Max Verstappen has been long and challenging, the signs are that in F1 2023, he may now have finally reached that destination.
Perez last time out would claim the Baku sprint and Grand Prix victory, cutting Verstappen’s lead at the top of the Drivers’ standings to six points, with another street track next up in Miami, these venues the ones where Perez simply seems to excel.
There was an element of fortune to how Perez got ahead of Verstappen during the Grand Prix, the timing of the Safety Car’s appearance punishing Verstappen who had been leading, but after Verstappen swiftly re-passed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Perez had his team-mate under control all the way to the chequered flag.
And when Red Bull advisor Marko appeared on the F1 Nation podcast, he warned not to “underestimate” Perez, with 1996 World Champion Damon Hill having suggested that the unlucky Verstappen seemed to be faster than Perez in clear air.
An all-Red Bull title scrap could be very much on then, and Marko highlighted Perez’s progression since joining the team, Perez now a life-loving Mexican driver who is also willing to put in the hard work.
“He [Verstappen] was unlucky with the Safety Car yes, but Sergio on the [Baku] street circuit, he has the most podiums here, so don’t underestimate Sergio,” Marko stated.
“He changed a lot since he came to us. He started working. Before he was a Mexican race driver who was enjoying life, he still does, but he does the necessary work.”
Hill would then liken this situation to Daniel Ricciardo’s, who returned to Red Bull as a third driver for the current campaign, having seen his nightmare McLaren stint ended early after two underwhelming years.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner would suggest that in Ricciardo’s time away from Red Bull, involving stints with Renault and McLaren, he had picked up habits which made him a driver which they did not recognise from their past time together.
“It was clear when he came back, that he picked up some habits that were not… that we didn’t recognise as the Daniel that had left us two or three years earlier,” Horner claimed.
Ricciardo has since spoken positively about the experience of getting back into the Red Bull simulator, feeling it correlate well to him as a driver, and so Hill said this situation and Perez’s show that Red Bull do more than just give drivers a cockpit and send them out onto the track, instead they actually train them as drivers too.
“They also said the similar thing about Daniel Ricciardo coming back to them,” Hill noted, “they put him in the sim and they looked at the way he’s driving and they were saying he’s picked up lots of bad habits, ‘we don’t know where he’s been, but they’ve ruined him’.
“And now they’re reteaching him, retrain the driver. So at Red Bull, they don’t just provide you with the car, they actually teach you to drive as well.”
And right now those teachings are working wonders for Verstappen and Perez, the pair demonstrating once more in Baku that even though Leclerc claimed a pair of pole positions, in race trim, Red Bull are just unstoppable. Or are they?
When Marko was asked if he already knew Red Bull had a ‘rocket ship’ in the RB19, of if this early F1 2023 dominance had confirmed it, he was very keen to play down such suggestions, explaining that in the late stages of the Baku GP, both Leclerc and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who was pursuing Leclerc, were matching Red Bull’s times.
Marko stressed that Red Bull had not turned the power down either, so feels this shows that rival teams are making progress, even if Red Bull did secure a third one-two finish from the opening four grands prix.
“No, you see both pole positions went to Ferrari, so they are coming closer,” said Marko.
“And in the last couple of laps, Alonso and Leclerc did the same lap times like we, we didn’t slow down, so it’s a hard fight and you have to always keep pushing.”
Red Bull have already built a strong buffer in the Constructors’ standings though, the team heading into Miami 93 points clear of Aston Martin.