Sergio Perez believes he can be a genuine challenger to Max Verstappen in this year’s title fight, having identified how he needs to step up his own level.
The Mexican driver heads to the Australian Grand Prix as Max Verstappen’s closest challenger in the Drivers’ Championship, trailing his Red Bull team-mate by just a solitary point after the Dutch driver claimed the fastest lap point on the final lap in Saudi Arabia.
On the streets of Jeddah, Perez took the win after some misfortune for Verstappen meant a driveshaft failure resulted in him qualifying in 15th. Coming through the field, Verstappen’s recovery was made easier by a mid-race Safety Car and, by half-distance, was five seconds behind his team-mate in a straight Red Bull battle for the win.
Verstappen was never able to close down the gap to Perez, although it’s worth pointing out the two-time World Champion has since revealed he was quite ill during the weekend – Verstappen having delayed his arrival into Saudi Arabia as a result of his illness.
Additional reporting by Michael Lamonato.
During their two seasons together so far, Perez has shown little sign of being a legitimate threat to Verstappen over the course of a season, with Saudi Arabia marking the first time Perez has led home a Red Bull 1-2.
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Despite this, the Mexican feels he’s on for a much stronger season in 2023 as he is finding himself much more at home with the handling of the RB19, and reckons he is going to be a thorn in the side for Verstappen this year.
“Certainly, I feel more comfortable in the car,” Perez told media, including PlanetF1.com, in Australia.
“I think we also learned quite a bit about which direction we took last year – not just the car itself, but also with how we set it up and how we try to compensate for the weaknesses that it was giving me and we were just taking performance out of the car, which is something that we managed to clear towards the end of the year. But I think, in general, I think the race pace or qualy pace these first two races has been there. So it’s just a matter of keeping evolving and keeping that momentum going.”
While Red Bull has revolved around their talismanic Dutch driver for the past half-decade, Perez believes the ‘second-car syndrome’ that afflicted the side of the garage he now occupies has vanished.
“I fully believe… certainly when I came to the team, things were very different,” he said.
“Basically, they were just going racing with two cars, because they had to. I can say now that I really feel part of the team, I really feel like I have my place and am well-respected.
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“That’s something good to have as a driver and I really believe that I have the full support of the team as much as Max does and I will have every single opportunity to win the Championship as much as he does.”
While Perez and Verstappen have largely got along as team-mates, there have been signs of some tensions arising between the pair – particularly towards the end of last season when Verstappen refused to relinquish a meaningless sixth place to Perez which would have helped his team-mate in his quest for second place in the Championship.
Asked about whether he’s ready to deal with the tensions that could arise between the two sides of the garage should Perez not be willing to play second fiddle anymore, he said he doesn’t see it being an issue.
“I’m here to do the best possible thing for myself as well,” he explained.
“To be honest, we’ve got a lot more respect for each other than people may think. Inside the doors, there is a great atmosphere with the team. That is a very high level of respect between each other in the team, with all the engineers from their side or my side. I think we are both mature enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong. As long as that keeps being the case, I don’t expect anything to change for us.”
Sergio Perez: I have to be able to beat Max Verstappen every weekend
But Perez admitted that dealing with a talent such as Verstappen as an opponent means there will be no margin for off-colour weekends.
“When you are in the fight for the Championship, you’ve got to take your A-game, every single race – you have to try everything you possibly can,” he said.
“But, at the same time, I think it will be very important that we both respect whatever has been told by the team. We are only on race number three, so there is a long way to go.
“If I want to win the Championship, I have to beat Max weekend-in, weekend-out and keep this level of consistency throughout the season. It’s all about season consistency. You can win 15 races but, in the other races, you just crash or have DNFs, it’s not enough.
“There is no doubt that there is no driver in such form as Max and so, together with the team as well with the car, he is definitely the hardest driver to beat. So it will require the maximum out of me, for me to bring my A-game every single weekend.”
One concern for Perez could have been over the path of car development as the RB19 matures. Last year’s RB18, which started off overweight with pronounced understeer, notably didn’t suit Verstappen as much as it did Perez, with the Dutch driver finding his feet as the car was dialled in further to his liking as the season progressed.
But Perez reckons this won’t be an issue this year, as he feels both he and Verstappen are looking for the same driving qualities.
“We’ve got a very strong car and package. I feel comfortable with the car and I’m working well with it,” he said.
“I also believe that, with the direction of technical development, I can get the most out of it. That’s important to be able to stay in the fight throughout the season, to have a car that you can be competitive in whatever condition you are in.
“Last year, when we started developing the car, or put it on a diet, that suited Max more and the gap just widened. I believe that, at the moment, we are asking for the same things. These first races, we’ve been very, very close together on balance, and I’m asking for a similar sort of balance.”