Christian Horner’s admission that Daniel Ricciardo wants a Red Bull Racing Formula 1 seat again, and Ricciardo’s subsequent confirmation that it is his “dream” scenario, put a target on Sergio Perez’s back.
Inevitably, the first day back in the paddock at the Hungarian Grand Prix after Ricciardo’s comeback in place of Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri was confirmed last week meant the first chance to hear what Perez makes of the situation.
Ricciardo’s return to the grid is the first step, he hopes, to an eventual Red Bull Racing return. He will have to earn it the hard way by impressing at the sister AlphaTauri team and hope that Red Bull decides sooner or later that Perez is not worth keeping around.
In one sense, Perez’s response to this was entirely predictable.
He has already stressed he is not paying attention to any speculation, he’s pointed to the fact he is under contract, and he has Red Bull’s backing.
A lot of that messaging was repeated in Hungary on Thursday. But there was more to it than that. Perez was mostly quite relaxed, he was extremely complimentary about Ricciardo, and he started his very first answer focusing on De Vries – although that answer did, unprompted, weave into Perez brushing off the idea he’s under more pressure now Ricciardo’s back on the grid.
“I feel sorry for Nyck,” Perez said when asked about the driver situation.
“He had a very short experience, it was quite brutal in that regard. But you never know what the future will look like for him. And it’s just how it is. This is Formula 1.
“On the other hand, I’m also happy for Daniel. I think he is very motivated to be back. So, well done for him. And it’s a great opportunity for him.
“From my side, it doesn’t change anything. I drive for Red Bull. There’s not just Daniel out there, it’s Yuki [Tsunoda], more than half of the grid would love to drive for Red Bull.”
That was a very fair point to make. It’s not quite right to say nothing has changed, as Ricciardo getting a race seat again is a significant variable, but Perez does still remain in control of his situation. That’s a powerful weapon to have.
Perez is under contract for 2024 although Red Bull has never shown mercy to a driver it believes no longer serves the right purpose. Perez will be ousted early if Red Bull wants it to happen.
So, Perez just needs to get back to where he was at the start of this season. It’s extremely unlikely Ricciardo can make an iron-clad case he would be an upgrade on Perez all the while he’s at AlphaTauri. If Perez doesn’t give Red Bull a reason to doubt him, then what Ricciardo does may well not matter.
“It’s in my hands, correct,” Perez said when asked by The Race if he feels in control.
“That’s why I’m focused. I am the first one [dissatisfied with poor performances], I’m a winner, I don’t like having a bad weekend. It’s not what I’m here for.
“I would rather be at home doing something else. I’m here because I know that I can do it. I’ve done it before. People just on the sofa forget how much in the little details we are.
“You’ve seen it with other drivers, other teams. They’ve had different difficult periods.
“But they don’t have 20 replacements after each session like they do with the Red Bull drivers.”
That was about as defensive as Perez got in the 12 or so minutes he sat with written media and, perfectly patiently, fielded a range of questions – not just about Ricciardo but also his own situation and his efforts to end his recent qualifying malaise.
But while it was slightly defensive it didn’t come across as a driver on the ropes. Perez seems quite calm. His mantra is that he’s “been in F1 for 13 years so I’m not a guy that anymore thinks so much further ahead”.
Perez isn’t burying his head completely in the sand. He acknowledges that Ricciardo was a “good opportunity” for Red Bull to boost its sister team, that he’s “still a great driver”, and that Red Bull Racing will miss his contribution on the simulator and behind the scenes now that he’s in a race seat again.
But that’s all peripheral stuff for now. As Red Bull and Ricciardo have only touted the possibility of him trying to get back into the senior team for 2025 – 18 months from now – Perez just doesn’t seem interested in wasting much energy worrying about it.
“I’m focusing on Hungary and then on Belgium,” said Perez.
“I’m not really thinking about 2025. It’s so far ahead, it’s nonsense to think that far away.”