Until Sergio Perez climbs into the RB20 for pre-season testing in Bahrain next February, the doubts will remain over his future with the world championship Formula One team. Even then should Checo get the vote of confidence from Christian Horner et al he will be monitored race by race to ensure he plays his part in retaining the team’s world title.
An important factor will be the Mexican driver’s relationship with his triple world champion team mate which as 2023 drew to a close looked broken beyond repair.
Red Bull “bad blood” hangover
Sergio had indicated during a Sky Sports F1 interview prior to the Mexican Grand Prix that he “hoped” Max Verstappen and the team would help him win his home race but this was not to be.
In fact the fallout from Chico’s request only came to light a week later as the F1 circus competed at the Interlagos circuit in Sau Paulo Brazil. The race weekend was unremarkable for Red Bull as Mercedes’ George Russell claimed victory in the Sprint on Saturday and his maiden Grand Prix win a day later.
During the closing stages of the Sau Paulo race, the team instructed Max Verstappen to allow his team mate to pass for the extra two points for his battle with Charles Lecelerc for second in the drivers’ championship. At the time Max was running in sixth and Perez one place back but the response from the world champion over team radio was scathing.
Race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase gave Verstappen an instruction with just a couple of laps remaining:
Verstappen scathing response to team
“Max, let Checo through please.”
The response was stony silence as Verstappen held his position. Lambiase then questioned why he had failed to do as requested and Verstappen’s response revealed the toxic nature of the topic.
“I told you already last summer, guys, don’t ask that again to me. Okay? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons, and I stand by it,” came the sort reposes from Max.
Clearly the issue of Verstappen helping out his team mate had been previously discussed within the team and received a negative response form their star driver.
Perez slams his team mate
As if to make matters worse, Sergio decided to offer his two pence worth on the issue during the cool down laps following the chequered flag.
“Thank you for that guys, thank you. This shows who [Verstappen] really is.”
Checo then compounded the problem in his interview with Sky Sports explaining:
“I mean I was told to let him by but I was going to get back to position. I don’t know what was the communication with him on his side? nothing to say really. I mean, after all, I’ve done for him, it’s a bit disappointing. Today, I have no idea, I’m really surprised.”
Perez drives through Vegas field
Verstappen copped a fair amount of criticism for his behaviours following the event with fans on social media accusing him of being “a one man team.”
As if in an ironic reponse, Max has indeed proven to be a one man team this season given his massive points haul alone were enough to give Red Bull the constructors’ title – even had Perez failed to score a single point.
Yet this was not the case for Checo. His determined drive through the field in Las Vegas after damage on lap one saw him claim the third step on the podium for the first time since Monza but more importantly cemented his second place in the drivers’ championship giving Red Bull their first ever season ending 1-2.
But it could have been so much more for Perez given he’d led the race outright when Charles Leclerc made his first pit stop for fresh rubber. However, the second Red Bull car was running more downforce on the rear wing – which helped Sergio warm his tyres up more quickly and gave him greater stability when cornering, but the price he was to pay was being 7kph slower than the Ferrari down the Vegas huge back straight along ‘the strip.’
Verstappen asked to help Sergio
Leclerc inevitably retook the lead, though was thwarted by a recovering Max Verstappen who had fallen back to P11 after a five second penalty was applied to his pit stop for running his Ferrari rival wide at turn one.
Yet Segio was to be offered one final opportunity to make the Vegas extravaganza a 1-2 for red Bull as Leclerc made a mistake – running wide – with a handful of laps remaining.
In a flash, Checo capitalised and looked set for P2 behind his team mate. Yet the draggy rear wing meant he couldn’t shake Leclerc who remained less than a second behind and with DRS assistance lap after lap.
The team then contacted Verstappen asking him to slow and remain around 2 seconds ahead of Sergio to “give him a tow.” Immediately Verstappen’s lead of over 4 seconds dropped to the margin the team had requested.
Mistake costs Checo P2
However as the cars hurtled down the Las Vegas Boulevard for the final time, Perez misjudge how far behind his Ferrari rival was at the final breaking point on the lap. Leclerc nipped through and took the chequered flag in P2 just 0.1 seconds ahead of the despondent Perez.
Sergio almost admitted it was his mistake in the post race interview:
“At the end with with Charles, I wasn’t expecting him – he was 0.7 [seconds behind], but then in the braking zone, he was there. So well done to him and to Max.”
Clearly as he received the delta gap between him and the Ferrari as they entered the final long straight, Perez didn’t believe the 0.7s gap could be closed by Leclerc and complacency meant he failed to move across the line before the braking zone and preventing the overtake.
Perez future remains uncertain
Whilst this rookie error may add to Red Bull’s concerns whether Perez is a suitable companion for Verstappen in 2024, it revealed their world champion driver is not one to hold grudges.
Unlike the previous year when Max refused to assist his team mate, he clearly heeded the team radio call as he explained later.
“Even on the last lap, I tried to give Checo a bit more of a tow but unfortunately the top speed was not enough to keep Charles behind, which of course was unfortunate because I think it would have been, of course, even better to have the one-two here, because I think it was a very fun race and, you know, the three of us, we all led, so it was a good race.”
Despite Perez losing a crucial place on the last lap for a second weekend in a row, Christian Horner lavished praise on his driver.
Horner praises Sergio stella drive
“For Checo to pick up front wing damage, a nose change on the first lap, go to the back of the field, come through and recover to lead the race and ultimately finished third on the last corner, which bags him second place in the championship.
I thought again was an excellent drive from him today,” concluded the Red Bull boss.
Red Bull now have their first ever 1-2 in the 2023 F1 drivers’ championship which they craved last year but were thwarted from due to Leclerc’s excellence.
Whether this is enough for Sergio to retain his drive with the Milton Keynes based squad for the entirety of 2024, only Perez can answer that with improved on track performances going forward.