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Formula 1

Why retirement is probably Perez’s best 2021 option

by Matt Beer
7 min read

Yes, it’s mad that the driver who currently trails only the Mercedes pair and Max Verstappen in the world championship, despite missing two races, may well miss out on a 2021 Formula 1 drive.

It’s not fair on Sergio Perez, who has outperformed his current team Racing Point’s 2021 drivers Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel this year, and many others with guaranteed seats for next year too.

That much has long been clear.

“Most drivers they retire and after six months they go mad and they want to do whatever is available. I have to see” :: Sergio Perez

But, given the reflective attitude Perez is taking to his 2021 options and his life, it’s not going to be a catastrophe for him if Red Bull keeps Alex Albon and F1 says goodbye to Perez (at least for now).

“If I don’t have Formula 1 next year, I don’t see myself doing anything else,” Perez said this week.

“So I would take a year to consider what I want to do, if I really miss it.

“Most drivers they retire and after six months they go mad and they want to do whatever is available. I have to see, I’ve never experienced that.

“My whole life I’ve been into it. So I have to see also the life out of the sport, how it is, how it suits me and then see if I miss it or I just want to carry on with that life.”

I found that so refreshing to hear. It’s too easy for fans and journalists to subconsciously place drivers on an endless career treadmill where to fall off is a failure or an injustice. If they’re losing an F1 seat, they need to find another. If none is available, they need to find somewhere else to race or a reserve role.

Actually, they don’t.

Perez started karting when he was six. He’s now 30 and has two young children.

Sergio Perez Turkish Grand Prix podium

He’s set to end the 2020 season having raced in 191 grands prix over 10 years in the championship, eight of which he finished in the top 10 in the drivers’ standings. He’s had nine podium finishes (so far) despite never being in anything quicker than the third-fastest car at very best, and in an era where the biggest teams have monopolised the podium spots to an enormous extent.

That’s actually a superb career.

There are two obvious precedents for walking away from F1 and racing outright in recent years – Nico Rosberg and Jolyon Palmer.

They were at opposite ends of a spectrum where Perez sits in the middle.

Rosberg had achieved what was likely to be his career high by beating Lewis Hamilton to a world championship, and – aged 31 – made a sudden, dramatic exit that some suggested was cowardice (when he should’ve tried to defend his title) but to me was probably the best thing Rosberg’s ever done.

Palmer, then 26, was dropped by Renault mid-season after just 35 F1 starts that generated two points finishes.

Some would argue that he’d done well to get a chance with a factory F1 team, hadn’t been good enough and therefore didn’t deserve anything more. Conversely, he worked his way up to become a GP2 champion and his brief F1 opportunity was with a team in far from good shape at that point.

Jolyon Palmer 2017

There are plenty of other series where Palmer and Rosberg could’ve gone on to thrive for many years. They’re very happy with their decisions not to take that route. Palmer’s an outstanding commentator and pundit, and Rosberg has given himself plenty of new missions to pursue.

If we put Perez’s loss of what will be an Aston Martin seat in 2021 aside as a fact that cannot be changed even if we vehemently disagree with it, none of his other options were really appealing.

There’s not a lot missing from Perez’s time in F1 if it ends next month

Yes with Red Bull he would have his best ever shot at F1 wins. But he’d be up against team-mate destroyer Verstappen, and – as brilliant as Perez’s F1 career has been – there’s nothing to suggest he is in that very small pantheon of proper superstars that Verstappen sits in. The already closed doors elsewhere would all have been steps down the grid from Racing Point/Aston.

Few would’ve imagined what the 2010s would hold for Perez during his junior career.

British Formula 3 National class champions rarely got any further at all, let alone to F1. Perez’s runaway title in the division for older cars in 2007 was followed by a strong 2008 season of four wins for T-Sport as only Carlin’s dominant trio Jaime Alguersuari, Oliver Turvey and Brendon Hartley beat him in the standings.

Sergio Perez wins Monaco GP2 2009

In GP2, he impressed throughout with his racecraft at the Addax team and built on that to challenge Pastor Maldonado for the 2010 title.

Nothing wrong with that trajectory at all. Impressive underdog stuff throughout. But the sort of CV that quite a few other decent drivers who never got to F1, and certainly didn’t stay there, have.

Turkish Grand Prix start 2020

Yes, Perez deserves F1 race wins and he hasn’t had any. But only 109 of the 773 drivers who’ve started world championship events have wins and only 33 of those 773 have become champions.

And no, he doesn’t deserve to lose his current drive but he’s had seven seasons at the team and that’s longer than many good drivers’ complete F1 careers.

And no, he hasn’t ever been given a top team chance. But the decade’s top teams all had degrees of opportunity to pick him – he was a Ferrari junior, he had a season at McLaren, he’s been with Mercedes’ main customer team for seven years, and he could be compared to plenty of Red Bull juniors along the way – and none felt he was the driver to bet on for titles.

Sergio Perez McLaren British Grand Prix 2013

Maybe we should add an asterisk to that McLaren period. It picked Perez as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement, at a time when Hamilton choosing Mercedes over McLaren felt like a real gamble given McLaren’s late-2012 pace. This was undoubtedly a top team initially seeing Perez as a future title hope – yet it still then dropped him, at a time when it was sure Honda was about to make it a championship winner again.

But with hindsight any injustice there is overshadowed by the lucky escape it turned out to be. Force India/Racing Point proved to be a much happier place to race than McLaren for the mid-2010s.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Malaysian Grand Prix, Sunday Podium Sepang, Malaysia

So getting the wins he came so close to with – remarkably – Sauber (pictured above) in only his second F1 year, and getting to leave Racing Point/Aston on his own terms aside, there’s not a lot missing from Perez’s time in F1 if it ends next month.

There are not many in modern F1 who can be as proud of their careers as Perez. Few have consistently maximised their equipment and beaten team-mates, or so rarely underperformed, to the same extent.

I’d miss him if he’s not racing in 2021. He’s a driver who can make unexpected things happen, his ‘tyre whisperer’ skills give him something close to unique in the current pack, you can’t rule him out of a good result wherever he ends up on the grid, and he’s someone you always watch on the timing screens when a qualifying session or race gets mad. He would be mega in Formula E, IndyCar or Le Mans’ new era.

But he’s a man who sounds absolutely at peace with the prospect of spending a year with his young family, assessing how he feels about what to do with the rest of his life. And it’s not like he won’t soon be getting phone calls from teams who need a supersub.

To me, the vision of a 2021 away from racing that Perez outlined this week sounds a much better option for him than a year of being hammered by Verstappen in the same team or hanging around F1 for the chance to get back on the grid in 2022 with a situation that would probably be beneath him.

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