Sergio Perez’s current Formula 1 form is not good enough for a car that is dominating the world championship in the hands of Max Verstappen.
Perez has now made it to Q3 only four times in eight grands prix. He’s twice crashed to get eliminated in Q1, and twice just not had the pace to move beyond Q2.
In the same car – and it is the same car, despite what conspiracy theorists will claim – Verstappen has seven Q3 appearances, five pole positions and six front-row starts. His sole early exit came in Saudi Arabia where he had a mechanical problem.
But it’s not just the direct Verstappen comparison that puts Perez in a bad light. A blunt check of this season’s qualifying progression records shows how badly he is underperforming – he has the same number of Q3 appearances as Haas’s Nico Hulkenberg and the two McLaren drivers.
TIMES MADE IT TO Q3 IN 2023
Fernando Alonso 8
Carlos Sainz 8
Max Verstappen 7
Lewis Hamilton 7
George Russell 6
Esteban Ocon 6
Charles Leclerc 6
Pierre Gasly 5
Lance Stroll 5
Sergio Perez 4
Oscar Piastri 4
Nico Hulkenberg 4
Lando Norris 4
Yuki Tsunoda 2
Alex Albon 2
Valtteri Bottas 1
Kevin Magnussen 1
It’s an extreme manifestation of the usual problem for a good number two – the consistency being the issue rather than the peaks – and the inevitable outcome is arguments from two ends of the spectrum.
One extreme is shouting that Perez is a poor driver in a great car, and that’s all there is to it. The other claims that he is clearly being screwed over by Red Bull in some way – Verstappen’s car is better, Perez doesn’t get given upgrades, or Perez is being held back because he started the season too close to Verstappen. That kind of accusation.
Neither of those situations reflects reality. Perez is a very good grand prix driver and he’s quicker than people give him credit for, but he’s not a one-lap specialist. He never has been. And now he is in a slump, which is surprising him as much as anybody.
We saw that in the race in Canada, not just in qualifying. Perez struggled to make progress until diverging strategies opened up a path to a muted sixth. He was quite a way off Verstappen’s pace as he struggled with the brakes and the ride quality of the Red Bull, and wasn’t able to trouble the Ferraris that were recovering from a similar grid position.
Ferrari was more competitive in Canada so this wasn’t as dramatic a failure as it would have been at other races, but Perez simply wasn’t quick enough to even challenge them in the race – and you can’t help feel that Verstappen would have made more progress.
The situation may be exacerbated by being in the middle of a crisis of confidence, and taking a mental blow after watching his slim title hopes get obliterated to nothing in recent weeks. It is not, as the argument from Perez’s fiercest defenders go, a case of Red Bull sabotaging him or giving him inferior equipment.
Red Bull has produced the fastest car in F1 and Verstappen can drive it supremely quickly week in, week out. Perez can’t.
Within that is the nuance of what Red Bull aims to get from its car, how well it is or isn’t suited to Verstappen, and how difficult it is for other drivers to replicate. Verstappen is Red Bull’s North Star and he is prodigiously talented – so as long as he can hang onto it, and it’s the fastest way for the car to be, Red Bull will ultimately care less if the second driver has more aggressive peaks and troughs trying to keep up.
But this year’s Red Bull doesn’t seem to be so obviously tailor-made for Verstappen as perhaps the 2019-21 cars were, because the new regulations haven’t quite facilitated the same type of car behaviour. And Perez claimed as recently as Spain that this is not like last season where he struggled to keep up with how the car changed as it was made lighter and improved.
He hasn’t indicated it’s a case of the RB19 being developed away from him. Instead, he knows what it needs, he just struggles to execute that. In blunt terms it’s a deficiency in ability, relative to Verstappen, rather than inferior equipment or treatment.
That’s a hard reality to process. Perez has the unenviable job of the number two to a megastar in a great car. It means a really difficult task of trying to match them every weekend, being exposed as an inferior driver when you can’t – and looking stupid when it goes badly wrong, like a Q1 or Q2 exit. The more that happens the more of a toll it will take.
Defeat is almost an inevitability. But that does not excuse the extent of Perez’s missteps. An easy reference is Valtteri Bottas’s immense Q3 record with Mercedes. Although comparing them like for like isn’t fair as things are always different season to season, it is at least an example of what a top team will ultimately expect from its second driver.
And it is nonsense to believe Red Bull will be orchestrating this Perez downturn in some way. True, Red Bull knows it can win both championships with Verstappen alone. That’s the extent of the car advantage. But that does not mean the team is going to deliberately screw over the second car, or even a lesser version of that like not helping Perez as much as it could just letting him suffer.
That’s not how a top F1 team operates, it would be disrespectful to a lot of people who work immensely hard making sure Red Bull has TWO competitive cars, and it would be immensely stupid to harm its own interests.
There are no guarantees Verstappen will qualify on pole and win every race. He might make a mistake, his team might make a mistake, he might suffer a car problem. Red Bull’s primary interest in Perez is for him to be right there ready to pick up the pieces if anything happens to Verstappen. It would not do anything to jeopardise that.
The one small point to pick up on is that while Red Bull will prefer to avoid Perez slumping this badly, it’s not all bad – because it’s making for an incredibly serene situation for Verstappen.
There’s no tension whatsoever when the second car is zero threat and nothing for Red Bull to manage. As much as people will try to claim that any Verstappen-Perez rivalry is fabricated the fact is that sporadic moments of Perez challenging Verstappen has caused issues. The world champion can be selfish when he wants or needs to be and he has an entourage that believes he should be the priority at all times. But remove an occasionally troublesome team-mate from the picture and everybody on the #1 side of the garage is happy.
That’s not meant to support any argument that Red Bull will want to facilitate this. It’s just a silver lining for the team, given its advantage means Perez’s problems don’t actually come with a massive downside at the moment.
In reality, Perez’s form is not a good thing for Red Bull. It’s a long-term headache. These are reminders of Perez’s limitations and when the performance floor is this low it does bring to mind the issues Perez’s predecessors faced. That’s not to say he deserves to be replaced, for he has shown higher peaks than Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon did. But it’s a reminder of how seriously Red Bull does take its second car slumping.
Consistent failures to reach Q3 are almost certainly not going to be the norm, and Perez will probably rebound sooner or later. The question will be how long can Red Bull afford this level of performance longer-term on the off chance he doesn’t.
Red Bull and Perez are getting away with it this year because the constructors’ title is not at risk and so far race wins have been safe too. But the team will know the risk of what happens when rivals become more competitive, when it has a situation where points are at a premium, when having two cars at the front is not a luxury but a necessity.
What happens if these swings in performance continue and Mercedes returns to its usual level, or Ferrari ups its game, or Aston Martin makes another step? Red Bull will not be able to fight for the championships single-handedly with Verstappen in that world.
Red Bull will take this seriously. The last thing it wants, or needs, is to have a second car that’s struggling.
That’s less a suggestion it may need to reconsider Perez’s place and more a simple argument for why Red Bull will do all it can to help him – not actively hold him back or leave him to suffer.