‘Max Verstappen could ‘destroy’ Sergio Perez, but he’s tough enough…’

Thomas Maher
Sergio Perez smiling with Max Verstappen in the press conference. Azerbaijan April 2023

Sergio Perez smiling with his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in the press conference. Azerbaijan April 2023

Former F1 and Le Mans racer David Kennedy believes Sergio Perez has the mental resilience to keep his championship challenge alive against Max Verstappen.

While Perez has fallen away from Verstappen to more than 50 points behind his Red Bull teammate after three consecutive weekends in which the Mexican couldn’t live with the Dutch driver’s performance, Kennedy reckons Perez is mentally tough enough to be able to hang on in to take the fight to Verstappen.

After a strong start to the year in which Perez and Verstappen were all but tied on points after near identical results from the first four races, Perez fell off the back of Verstappen with a lack of pace from pole position in Miami, a crash in qualifying in Miami, and a mistake in Q2 in Spain that cost him a top 10 starting position.

Just as Perez had his downturn in form, Verstappen’s expected dominance emerged as he took three wins on the bounce, and the former Shadow and Theodore racer believes Perez is up against a driver just as imperious as some of the sport’s all-time greats.

David Kennedy: Sergio Perez is tough enough to keep putting himself on a pedestal

“It’s gonna be very difficult with Verstappen’s confidence and his absolute dedication and commitment to it, it’s fabulous to see,” Kennedy told PlanetF1.com in an exclusive interview, when asked if Perez can pull off a proper title fight.

“It’s harkening back to the days when Michael Schumacher was at his peak, there was nothing on the planet to touch him. So I wouldn’t want to be in any other driver’s shoes, let alone as teammate to take him on. It’s a big task, and it needs to be a special teammate.

“Perez is a tough nut and he always reminds me of Eddie Irvine [Schumacher’s teammate at Ferrari from 1996 to 1999].

“There are very few that can live alongside a driver of really special talent, because it effectively wears you down, and everything that you believed in yourself is just stripped apart like an onion, peel by peel, layer by layer, to absolutely confirm that you weren’t the genius you thought you were because, if you’re living alongside [Ayrton] Senna or Verstappen or Schumacher, they can absolutely destroy you. Perez does lack that last little bit of raw speed but he’s a really good race driver and that’s a really valuable asset for the team.”

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But while Perez may be lacking Verstappen’s outright pace, Kennedy said his mental resilience will stand to him as the season progresses, even if he has to admit to himself he doesn’t tick all the boxes the Dutch driver does.

“I think he’s tough enough to wear that,” he said.

“You have to be fairly blind, to a degree, to be a race driver, blind to ignore all the foibles, and just put yourself continually on that pedestal.

“When that’s taken away from you all the time, it’s a very difficult thing to address and I think he’s got the smarts and a tough character. Has he got the standard for Verstappen? Who has, you know?

“There are only a few drivers every couple of years that can get into that zone. I’m talking about Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Lewis Hamilton when he was younger… I think Charles Leclerc is there too, I just don’t think the car has given him that space to be able to nail it.

“Perez is the right guy to run alongside Verstappen because you’d have a meltdown if you had someone like Leclerc in there alongside him. But they’ve got Perez in there, and that’s a strong formula.

“Your best friend and your worst competitor, so to speak, is your teammate. It’s a marriage of that and sometimes an indication of how it works as the intelligence of the second driver.

“The first driver can throw his weight around and be arrogant and make the calls. It’s the second driver, which Perez clearly is, is how he handles that. Has he got the measure, has he got the ingredients to be able to be that second driver and get the best out of it?”

How Verstappen/Perez contrasts to Lewis Hamilton’s title fight with Nico Rosberg

But Kennedy compared the situation to what unfolded between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg back in 2016. After two years of Mercedes’ dominance in which Hamilton had emerged as the forerunner for the title, Rosberg managed to put in a consistent year of maximising results that allowed him to pip Hamilton to the 2016 title – the effort of doing so caused Rosberg to immediately retire from the sport.

“Even though it’s a whisker between them when you look at how the ball bounces – Verstappen touched the barrier in Monaco and that could have easily ended up with two wheels on your wagon – it is such a fine margin,” Kennedy pointed out.

“Or have a big shunt in Canada and it knocks you sideways as well as the team and it takes a couple of races to get your rhythm back. It’s still open for Perez to pull off that championship. He’s got to knuckle down and do more work and drive harder than Verstappen and I think he’ll stay the course. I think he’d be damaged goods if he steps away from Verstappen now he’s got the chance to have the best car and probably have the best results he could ever have.

“It’s a perfect parallel in that contrast with Rosberg and Hamilton, it was paper thin between them. Lady luck is always a player in these things and if you stay longer and burn the midnight oil, there’s just some little factor that might strike: ‘Ah, we can do a little bit better than what we’ve been doing’, and it can make the difference.”