How Sergio Perez turned a Mexican racing ban into an F1 career

Thomas Maher
Sauber's Sergio Perez pictured during the 2011 season.

Sauber's Sergio Perez pictured during the 2011 season.

Sergio Perez may be heading to the Mexico City Grand Prix as a race win contender, but there was a time he wasn’t even allowed race in his home country…

Perez heads to Mexico very much the home hero as he fights with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc over second place in the 2022 F1 Drivers’ Championship behind World Champion teammate Max Verstappen but, once upon a time, Perez wasn’t even able to race in Mexico.

Opening up about his climb to F1 in a column with The Players’ Tribune, Perez has revealed that the sport at which he now excels wasn’t even on his mind during his early karting career.

“Formula 1? As a kid, I never thought about it,” he wrote.

“There were no Mexican drivers there. I was just racing because I loved it.”

But a badly-timed (or was it well-timed?) karting collision changed the course of his career.

“At the start, my idea was to stay in Mexico,” he said.

“But then one day, I got banned. When I was in my early teens, I had a special permit that allowed me to race go-karts against much older drivers.

“This one season the championship winner would get a test in formulas, so my plan was to win it and get signed by Escuderia Telmex.

“I was leading the championship, but then I crashed with this guy who was very powerful within the Mexican racing federation. Long story short, they withdrew my license.

“I was out. Championship over. I didn’t know it then, but that would be my last race in Mexico for more than a decade.”

Carlos Slim hands Sergio Perez a career lifeline

However, fortune was to smile on the young Perez as Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest men in the world, gave him an opportunity to continue with his racing career.

“Luckily, Telmex found out about my situation and gave me a test anyway,” he said.

“When I was 14, I ended up racing for them in the Skip Barber National Championship over in the U.S. And I was happy.

“One day, I visited my brother, who had moved to the UK to race in Formula 4. I saw how professional things were there, and I realised that all the best drivers were in Europe. Suddenly, I only wanted to race in Formula 1. Somehow, I had to get to Europe.”

Perez outlined how he set out on a “crazy routine” where he would wake up at 3AM every night in order to make cold calls to European racing teams and beg them for opportunities in his then very broken English.

Running up a huge phone bill that got him in big trouble with his parents, Perez turned to sending emails out into the ether – eventually making contact with a small German Formula BMW team owner named Guenther Unterreitmeier. Unterreitmeier offered Perez a very cheap racing programme. As cheap as it was, Perez himself couldn’t afford it – meaning he had to convince Slim to send him to Europe.

This took some time, with Perez having to harangue his billionaire backer as Slim had no desire to send a 14-year-old teenager to Europe. But, eventually, Perez convinced Slim to stump up the cash and send him on a one-way trip to Munich.

Sergio Perez makes the move to Europe and climbs into F1

Perez then outlined the major culture shock he encountered as he moved from the hustle and bustle of Guadalajara in Mexico to living in rural Germany – revealing his loneliness and isolation as he spoke no German and had no internet to stay in touch with home. He threw himself into his gym routine and worked as a chef’s assistant in a restaurant in between his racing duties.

However, Perez made his mark in Formula BMW during his formative years in Europe before racing with Team Mexico in A1GP.

Moving to British F3 in 2007, winning the National class and finishing fourth in the International, he climbed up into GP2 (now Formula 2) with Telmex backing in 2009.

Two years later, Perez was in F1, having signed a deal to race with Sauber and becoming part of the Ferrari Driver Academy. While his F1 career has had its ups and downs since then, Perez heads home this weekend racing for the F1 Constructors’ Champions Red Bull, aiming to replicate, at least, his podium finish from 2021 and send his home crowd into raptures.

Read More: Will Red Bull prioritise Sergio Perez over Max Verstappen in Mexico?