Is Perez under pressure?
Sergio Perez heads into his home race under pressure as this time around as his future with the team hangs in the balance. Perez has endured a hugely disappointing 2023 campaign, failing to provide effective backup for his dominant teammate Max Verstappen.
While Verstappen has won fifteen races, Perez has only won two and the last one being in Baku at the end of April. The Dutchman has been so brilliant that he sealed a third successive drivers’ title with six races still to go, with that form also ensuring Red Bull wrapped up the constructors’ title a round earlier.
Going into the European season there was hopes that he could challenge Verstappen with it being tied three all in term of sprint and Grand Prix wins. But the race before in Miami saw Perez failing to convert pole position in the next race in Miami as his team-mate came from ninth on the grid to comfortably win.
In the 13 races since, Perez has managed just four podiums, has qualified in the top four on only one occasion, and has been knocked out before Q3 seven times. While beating Verstappen isn’t the problem, the fastest car on the grid in the ands off Perez has repeatedly been beaten by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren drivers, and often several of them at the same time.
The midseason change at Alpha Tauri bringing in Daniel Ricciardo to replace Nyck de Vries from Budapest then the four race when Ricciardo was injured and replaced by Liam Lawson, between Zandvoort and Lusail, added pressure. There was even a rumour that Perez was planning to announce his retirement in Mexico, which he laughed off.
Whether or not he was alluding to the ever-growing pressure he is facing when describing the Mexico City Grand Prix as “my most important weekend”, it might just turn out to be exactly that, with how he performs under the spotlight potentially having a big sway on how he is viewed by the Red Bull hierarchy.
The explanation Perez and Red Bull have given is the in-season development of the RB19 going in a direction which doesn’t suit his driving style, but one that enables Verstappen to produce magical speed. There is truth in that, when Alex Albon was Verstappen’s teammate he also struggled and was dropped in favour of Perez, but has become team leader and pulled off big results for Williams as they’ve moved back into the midfield.
There had been talk of a ‘reset’ for Perez at the United States Grand Prix after particularly poor races in Japan and Qatar, with several days spent on the simulator at Red Bull’s base, but it was ultimately another underwhelming weekend.
He only qualified ninth for the race, and despite finishing fourth after being promoted a place thanks to Lewis Hamilton’s disqualification, was a long way off the pace of the leading trio, while in the Sprint he qualified seventh and finished fifth.
Perez, in a post-race interview with Sky Sports that sounded like many others he has done this season, explained how it had gone wrong for him on this occasion.
he said, “I wanted more. At times I had a very good pace. We’re still lacking that consistency. I think we know what we did wrong at the weekend, so we are really optimistic going onto the future races, so hopefully we can improve that. I think we did very good steps. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to show it because we took the wrong direction on the setup given that it was a Sprint race.”
Red Bull remains publicly supportive of Perez, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that the RB19 has been developed in a favourable direction for Verstappen. However, naturally, teams tend to focus on the driver who is performing the best and F1 is also a mental game.
Earlier in the year, Helmut Marko was condemned widely for suggesting that Perez’s ‘South American heritage’ was behind the ‘fluctuated in his performance this year,’ he has since apologised for the remarks.
Despite the rumour saying Perez may lose his seat if he loses second in the drivers championship, Horner insisted that there was “no pre-mandate” on Perez having to finish second to keep his seat for 2024.
Horner said, “With this car, it would be fantastic in such a season that we’ve had if we could finish first and second. But there’s no pre-mandaten Checo that you have to finish second or you won’t be driving the car next year. That’s never been discussed.”
Ferrari’s F1 upgrades boosts Leclerc’s confidence
Charles Leclerc has explained why recent upgrades to Ferrari’s car has made him more confident in the SF23. Last weekend he failed to convert Grand Prix pole into a podium after losing the lead and going the wrong way on strategy, dropping him to sixth. But he was one of the drivers disqualified for excessive wear on his floor plank.
The end result masked what has been a stronger spell for Leclerc as both he and team-mate Carlos Sainz have gone through ebbs and flows with how much confidence their 2023 car gives them. All season Ferrari has been struggling with the inconsistency with its car behaviour.
Leclerc is no fan of understeery set-ups, but that was what was needed to mitigate the 2023 car’s worst behaviour and yield the best lap times. The Suzuka updates, however, have now allowed him to make fewer compromises on how he has to balance the SF23.
He said “All in all, it’s exactly what I’ve been complaining about since the beginning of the season, where we have a car that is very inconsistent. Once we get oversteer, we lose a lot of overall grip and this upgrade was exactly for that. That helped me gain a bit more confidence and to set up the car in a way that I prefer, and to have a bit of a stronger front, which normally is something that I enjoy.”
Since then Leclerc says he has been at more ease with the car, Ferrari I believe is still trying to get out of this phase where the car and strategy over several years hasn’t come together. Leclerc hasn’t been Ferrari’s lead performer since the summer break, but he might be starting to close the gap to Sainz, its been six all since Zandvoort.
However, the updates have helped Leclerc get on par and perhaps even gain the upper hand on Sainz, who had been Ferrari’s best performer in the three races following the summer break, before the Japan floor arrived.
Fred Vasseur thinks Ferrari’s car changes will help both drivers achieve the balance they prefer rather than favouring one driver over the other as an unintended side-effect. Ferrari’s team principal added “We are speaking about hundredths of seconds. Charles was on pole in Spa in front of Carlos with the old package and each weekend from Spa we are speaking about hundredths of seconds.”
Mercedes “embarrassed” by disqualification
Mercedes technical director James Allison says the team were left “embarrassed” by Lewis Hamilton’s disqualification from the United States Grand Prix for a breach of technical regulations.
Hamilton who finished second and Leclerc in sixth were disqualified from the race after the wear levels on the planks underneath their cars were found to have exceeded limits set out in F1’s regulations.
The seven-time world champion’s disqualification means that instead of closing to within nineteen points of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for second in the drivers’ standings, his deficit grew to thirty-nine points with just four rounds of the season remaining. It is reported if Perez loses second in the championship he could lose his Red Bull seat.
In Austin, Mercedes final significant upgrade of the season saw Hamilton, before being disqualified, narrowly miss out on his first win since Jeddah 2021. Allison said that the progress made in terms of performance will help the team get over the disappointment of the disqualification.
He added: “Give it a day or two and that will start to wane and be replaced by the much happier feeling, which is we moved our car forward this weekend and that it’s hard to do that. But we did it and we did it by a decent amount. And with four races left in the championship, four races where I am pretty sure we will stay on the right side of the skid block rules.”
Allison admitted that the team had made “a mistake” by failing to leave enough margin. The rules don’t allow the teams to make set up changes on sprint weekends following Grand Prix qualifying if they discover issues in the Sprint they cannot change anything without breaking parc ferme, thus incurring a pit lane start.
There has been discussion about changing the parc ferme rules to allow changes between the sprint race and Grand Prix as the current rules mean teams are locked in from Friday qualifying for the whole weekend. Playing into the problem was the bumpy nature of Austin, and over the course of the weekend, the plank wore below the legal limit.
The pain of disqualification could have been even more extreme for Mercedes had Hamilton ended a near two-year wait for his hundred and fourth victory, which very nearly happened. Following the race the seven-time champion ‘felt he could fight for the win’ but admitted he fell bbackbecause he was on ‘a less optimum version of the two-stop strategy.’
Mercedes believed their best chance of victory was by running an alternative strategy, and they thought a one-stop was possible as Hamilton maintained strong pace late into his first stint.
FIA insists it is “impossible” to check every component
The FIA insists it is “impossible” to check every component on every car in scrutineering, amid ongoing controversy over the disqualifications of Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc. Five hours after last weekend’s race in Austin, both the Mercedes and Ferrari were disqualified after their floor planks were found to have worn away beyond the allowed amount.
But while both teams accepted their cars did not comply with the regulations, there was a fair deal of intrigue prompted by the fact that the FIA had not checked the planks on all the cars. Beyond the two disqualified drivers, only Max Verstappen’s Red Bull and Lando Norris’s McLaren were also examined.
The situation which emerged in Austin raised questions about whether when this issue emerged should the FIA of expanded it inspection to all cars as there were potentially others that had worn away their planks too much.
This was something that F1 co-commentator Martin Brundle suggested in his regular post-race column for Sky. Writing “After the race four cars were checked, including Verstappen’s Red Bull and Norris’ McLaren, and both Hamilton’s Mercedes and Leclerc’s Ferrari were found to have too much wear, for which the only remedy is disqualification, however minimal the indiscretion. There can be no grey area on this.”
He came to the same conclusion as many, “if half of the tested cars failed, then shouldn’t all the finishers have been checked? The answer must surely be yes.”
But the FIA has explained that such detailed checking of cars as complex as F1 is simply not going to happen, as it is not practically possible to go through every component of each classified finisher in the time that is available.
Instead, it says its long-standing protocol of randomly checking various parts from cars has long worked because teams never know what components are being looked at each race – so they can’t risk trying to get around the rules. I understand where the FIA are coming from, but I think given the situation we had I think they could have been ‘targeted checks’ on all the cars.
The FIA has explained that this random element is enough of a deterrent to ensure that teams comply with the regulations. Saying “This means that, from their perspective, any part of the car could be checked at any time, and the consequences for non-compliance with the technical regulations can be severe.”
“The vast majority of the time, all cars are found to be compliant. However, as happened in Austin, breaches of the rules are occasionally found and reported to the Stewards, who decide the appropriate action to take.”
The FIA says that practical aspects have to be taken into account when it comes to checking cars, and there is always a limited amount of time after qualifying and the race, when cars are regularly checked.
Adding “However, even though a wide array of checks are made, it is impossible to cover every parameter of every car in the short time available – and this is especially true of back-to-back race weekends when freight deadlines must also be considered.”
The bid to ensure teams are complying with the rules is also boosted by the fact that at each event one car is singled out for more extensive tests – which go into far greater detail than is possible in the immediate post-race activities.
Norris says McLaren are targeting third
Lando Norris says McLaren is now targeting third-placed Ferrari after overtaking Aston Martin in the constructors, which he said was getting “slower and slower”. As we seen following McLaren’s mid season turn around, the team has slashed the gap to Aston Martin who have struggled since the summer break.
Norris’ latest second place last weekend in Austin, was enough for McLaren to leapfrog the Silverstone outfit and hold fourth by six points. Saying he was puzzled by how Aston was making its car “slower and slower” in recent weeks and thinks McLaren can still target Ferrari, which is 80 points clear in third.
Speaking about Ferrari’s lead, Norris said, “It’s our target. I think we’re in a good rhythm. It’s been clear that Aston… I don’t know, they seem to have managed to make the car slower and slower with every upgrade that they’ve bought. They were racing [Red Bull] at the beginning of the year and they were out in Q1 and then they’ve been struggling, so I don’t know what their issues are.”
Aston’s Fernando Alonso took six podiums in the first seven grands prix and only managed to add one top-three finish since. Norris has done the opposite thanks to a dramatic in-season turnaround by McLaren, which produced powerful upgrades before the summer break and then again at Singapore.
Aston Martin has conceded they failed to keep up with McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes in the development battle. Norris has done the opposite thanks to a dramatic in-season turnaround by McLaren, which produced powerful upgrades before the summer break and then again at Singapore.
he added, “[Aston] were very strong, they had a lot of points in the first half of the season and in the second half they’ve been struggling, and for us, it’s vice versa.”
In the first eight races, McLaren had only managed to score 17 points between Norris and rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri. It is that unlikely comeback that has made it easier for the Briton to settle for podiums as his wait for a maiden win continues after 100 races with McLaren.
Norris explained, “When you look at where we were, how bad Bahrain was for us, how many seconds off pole we were, my six pit stops in the first race of the season, I lost my PU straight away… there are things that put us on the back foot from the beginning,”
“When you look at where we are now, to be fighting against a Red Bull, which was an unrealistic target for almost anyone, and fighting against a Mercedes… As much as we are disappointed that we can’t go for a race win, when you put it in perspective of where we were and how much we’ve improved, I think it’s still an amazing day for us.”
The Weekend Ahead
Max Verstappen is unsurprisingly the favourite this weekend not only because of the way he has dominated this season but because this is a circuit which has suited him with four wins here, it’s a high-speed circuit with following corners its very similar to Monza in terms of layout, levels of downforce etc. Verstappen won that weekend.
But as we wrote earlier its teammate Sergio Perez is under the most pressure going into this weekend, he needs a good result. He hasn’t won since Baku and has been regularly beaten by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren, we know that group has been close. I think Mercedes got a big boost with the upgrades in Austin and are now in a battle with McLaren and Ferrari.
Perez is under pressure, as we explored earlier, he neds a good weekend as he been looking to be at the centre of speculation over his future. We know he has a contract for next year but there is reports that losing second in the drivers, will see him lose his seat with Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton is the biggest threat, theres this feeling I think that Mercedes last big upgrade last weekend, has brought Mercedes into the fight and like in Sao Paulo last year fight for victory. Mercedes are on their way back, but I think they still need to be wary of McLaren while Ferrari has slipped away. McLaren are looking good they won a race with sprint victory in Doha.
The fight in Austin was close across the field I think its going to be the same here, but we are 6,000m above sea level which acts as a performance leveller. But that’s not always the case, this race has been dominated by the front-running teams, Verstappen is a Mexico specialist.