How one Sergio Perez comment gave Max Verstappen an unwanted boost

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen applauds Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez. Azerbaijan, April 2023.

Max Verstappen claps as Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez celebrates victory in Baku. Azerbaijan, April 2023.

Sergio Perez’s performances began to suffer straight after he claimed that he was ready to fight for the F1 2023 title, with his bold statement giving Max Verstappen an added boost. 

That is the opinion of 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, who believes that Perez is simply not at the level of Red Bull team-mate Verstappen.

Perez made his best-ever start to a season in 2023, winning twice in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan to sit within six points of Verstappen after four rounds.

Sergio Perez’s words lit a fire under Max Verstappen

However, the Mexican has finished on the podium just twice since and failed to reach Q3 for the fourth round running at last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix as Verstappen took his fifth consecutive victory to extend his advantage to 81 points.

Villeneuve believes Perez’s downfall can be traced back to his suggestion that he could beat Verstappen to the title, with the Dutchman rising to the challenge and coinciding with Perez’s loss of momentum with embarrassing early qualifying exits in Australia, Monaco, Spain, Canada.

The Canadian stressed that a driver with serious ambitious of winning the World Championships cannot make the kind of mistakes Perez did in Friday qualifying in Austria, where multiple lap deletions for exceeding track limits left him 15th on the grid.

He told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport: “Sergio started to drop in performance soon after he said: ‘Now I will fight to win the Championship.’

“In my opinion that statement gave Verstappen an extra boost – and he, on the other hand, started to suffer and make mistakes.

“I know that every driver has to understand what his level is. And Sergio is not at Max’s level. Yes, he is capable of going as fast as him, but not over the whole season. If you say something like that, then you can’t make mistakes like he did on Friday in qualifying [in Austria].”

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Despite their dominant position in the Constructors’ Championship, with a 199-point lead over Mercedes having won all of this season’s nine races so far, Perez’s dramatic loss of form has fuelled suggestions that Red Bull might be minded to make a change to their driver lineup.

After a team orders row in Brazil last year, the drivers came to blows yet again on the opening lap of the rain-affected sprint race at the Red Bull Ring as Perez put Verstappen on the grass as they fought for the lead.

Asked if Perez is seriously at risk of being dropped, Villeneuve said: “At Red Bull the drivers are always at risk. It’s normal.”

Pressed if that applied to every driver at Red Bull who is not called Max Verstappen, he replied: “No, everyone who is not at that excellent level.”

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