The words “McLaren” and “Lewis Hamilton” often went hand in hand. Now fans must become accustom to Sergio Perez’s new role at McLaren. Replacing Hamilton, who had previously acted as a poster boy for the Wokingham outfit, the young Mexican has a point to prove following an underwhelming start to the 2013 season.
The ever-present smile has begun to fade in recent weeks as journalists begin to question his multi-year contract. When positioned next to the experienced and well-respected Jenson Button, it is easy to picture Sergio Perez as a child lost in a sea of doubt and shoulder shrugs as McLaren mechanics search desperately for those extra few tenths.
Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has admitted that losing their prodigy Lewis Hamilton was a huge blow to the team. Their future, which in the eyes of many was to be dictated by the World Champion, was thrown into jeopardy as he sought pastures new at Mercedes AMG. It was the three podiums achieved by Sergio Perez in the Sauber last year which was enough to beat out Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg for the coveted seat.
For years, the discussion had always been: “who will replace Mark Webber at Red Bull?” Very few had considered a change of scene at McLaren, besides Eddie Jordan of course.After all, any predictions over Sergio Perez’s future pointed straight to Ferrari following years at the helm of their Young Driver Programme. Sporting politics made this almost guaranteed.
McLaren want him to “toughen up” but Perez’s difficult start to the season can be defended. Signing the Mexican was a last minute decision; the team clung onto the coat tails of Lewis Hamilton for far too long. After refusing a pay rise, Hamilton left, leaving his familiar surroundings, a place he admitted was not challenging him as a driver.
Should we therefore forgo the criticism and instead reserve judgement until Brazil? The answer could be, yes. Bahrain saw the racer we had once known return in part – though it did seem like Kamui Kobayashi left some of his risky overtaking manoeuvres behind for his former Sauber team mate. The battle between himself and Button stands at 2-2 in terms of positioning suggesting the two, as expected, are equal in terms of tyre wear and acute race awareness. Indeed the world champion is currently trailing his team mate in the championship having out performed Hamilton in previous years.
I am sure you all have your own opinion on the team orders saga. I was relieved that Bahrain presented another opportunity for Perez; the chance to race his team mate. Whilst anything less than a victory will be a failure in the eyes of Formula 1’s perfectionists, the battle for fifth did create a ‘heart in mouth moment’. Don’t you just love them?
The main problem presented to Sergio Perez is his youth. Whilst relatively experienced and many times a podium finisher, he is the youngest driver featured in the top five teams; Perez will have a battle on his hands if he is to carve a reputation similar to his closest rivals. It is also easy to compare him to Lewis Hamilton following his 2007 debut, but these two drivers are different. Hamilton had nothing to lose; Sergio Perez already has the weight of two years behind him. Mentally these drivers are incomparable in that sense.
Speaking of mentality, a side of the sport often overlooked, I recently interviewed his former Physical and Mental Trainer Simon Fitchett (the two parted ways in 2012) about the struggles that Perez may face. He put it simply, “providing Sergio maintains his optimum fitness level he will have no issues stepping into the Mclaren”. In 2012, Simon was his right hand man, the person who knew him best. It is for this reason that his opinion could be valued highly.
Jenson Button asked his team to “calm him down” as the two jostled for position, proof that Perez is stuck. Competing against a team mate is a dangerous art that can cause many problems should a crash occur. Unfortunately for both Perez and Button (whose recent form can also be defended) their car is not fast enough to compete with Lotus, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes who stand in front. Force India are their main rivals but a battle with the Silverstone outfit is not what these drivers want and it is certainly not enough for a championship.
Perhaps the blame should therefore be faced by McLaren? The team are perfectionists; their modern technology centre is proof of this. The truth is, the promise of a championship winning car has not been met leaving two drivers, one team and a world of fans alike to consider the reasons why.
So what happens now for a driver so easily criticised? Perez intends to focus purely on the remainder of the season until the necessary upgrades can be utilised to full effect. Final judgement should, and will, come at the end of the season as twenty-two drivers fight to retain their seats. Rumours currently circulating suggest that a seat at Red Bull or Lotus could become available for 2014. It is entirely possible that a young driver, such as Nico Hulkenberg or Paul Di Resta, with similar experience will step up to the mantle allowing a realistic target and comparison to be made.
McLaren are a team that thrive with continuity and learning on previous experiences. For this reason they are unlikely to terminate Perez’s contract regardless of his performance, a team that prestigious cannot afford to admit such costly mistakes.
Only time will tell whether the Mexican has performed to a necessary ability. All that we can know for certain is that the championship he so desperately hoped for in 2013, is slowly and painfully slipping away.
Images courtesy of Simon Fitchett and McLaren F1.