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Sergio Perez - Just a Red Bull 'Number Two' driver?

Jim K 6/21/2023
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Is Perez a number two driver at Red Bull?

Image: Red Bull Racing

Formula One has repeatedly seen a team rising above all others, and more often than not, that dominant outfit has a star driver shining far brighter than their counterpart across the garage. After first finding Red Bull Racing as his saving grace when facing an F1 exit, Sergio Perez's performances in 2023 are reassigning his place in the sport's history books as the latest in its list of 'number two' drivers.

While there's nothing wrong with being a slower driver than Max Verstappen — a driver rapidly closing in on his third world championship title — playing second fiddle isn't the dream of any racer. Yes, there are podiums and World Constructors' Championship triumphs to celebrate for the most illustrious number twos. Yet, for most of any given year, they must watch their peer in equal machinery celebrating pole positions, victories, and titles while questioning their own purpose. 2023 is doing that on a new level with the quick decline in Perez's pace as the season progresses.

The Mexican racer took two early-year wins to suggest he might be the man to keep the championship fight alive well into the year after Red Bull created their RB19 — a car that has no equal in race pace. Without Mercedes, Ferrari, or surprise frontrunner Aston Martin to challenge him, Perez has only one competitor to beat in 2023: Max Verstappen.

Is Perez a number two driver at Red Bull?

Image: Red Bull Racing

That isn't happening, though, and Perez is now on a three-race run without taking to the podium in a season where P2 should be the worst-case scenario at any Grand Prix. Instead, he's having to make up ground that he's losing on Saturday in qualifying, where the 33-year-old is either crashing or simply not quick enough to progress through to Q3 and stake a claim at grabbing pole position.

The Sainte Devote smash in Monaco's Q1, easily the most crucial of all F1 qualifying sessions, was a low point for Perez, especially after winning the race one year earlier. A back-row start preceded his 'climb' up to P16.

That barrier hit was even worse for the team, not because F1 is in its cost cap era, but because the crane that recovered Car 11 raised the RB19 high into the sky to let the media photograph and film Red Bull's complex floor design from all angles. A gift from Perez to all nine teams playing catch up.

Is Perez a number two driver at Red Bull?

Image: Red Bull Racing

In Spain and, most recently, Canada, the Q2 exits with P11 and P12 qualifications are starting to look like the rule rather than the exception. Even the best drivers can have a bad day, perhaps even two, with the length of the ever-growing seasons in the modern era. Yet Perez's 2023 is around a third complete, and he's failed to reach Q3 in half of all grands prix in one of the best cars F1 has seen.

Miami served as the best example of the gulf between Perez and Verstappen. The latter's victory from P9 over the pole-sitting Perez came at a race that didn't see a yellow flag, let alone a safety car to assist Verstappen's progress — and yet the Dutchman won by five seconds! You can't imagine Checo starting eight positions behind Max and being half a pit straight ahead when the checkered flag drops, can you? That's the difference between the pair.

When Perez is at his best, as he was in Azerbaijan for a Sprint and Grand Prix, he can just about keep Verstappen at bay. However, when he's not, as is becoming increasingly common, he makes the Red Bull look inconsistent and lacking in one-lap pace. There's no denying Adrian Newey's design is an all-time great, but that perception is solely thanks to Max Verstappen's performances for onlookers to appreciate the RB19's pace.

Is Perez a number two driver at Red Bull?

Image: Red Bull Racing

Whether Perez's problems stem from the pressure of needing to perform or something else isn't particularly relevant to me. I've seen Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, and arguably Daniel Ricciardo go toe-to-toe with Verstappen and come away bloodied; adding Perez to the pile isn't a shock. Perez is just the latest example of the fine line between a great driver and an extraordinary driver.

I hugely respect anyone who reaches F1, even those that hit the top via financial means. A pay driver must tame the most advanced sporting vehicles that humanity can create the same as a generational talent does, and the high-speed crashes show what's on the line should they not control what's underneath them. Yet even with the same machinery, the very best of this already elite group can do what others can't, and Perez is showing he's not in that fabled top pack.

Valtteri Bottas couldn't emulate Lewis Hamilton, just like Felipe Massa couldn't beat Fernando Alonso, and before him, it was Rubens Barrichello standing in the shadow of Michael Schumacher. Even still, Bottas, Massa, and Barrichello are F1 race winners, and their names are etched into the annals of time for the sport. Perez will join them as a driver unable to match what his exceptionally-skilled teammate could do, and there's no shame in that.

Is Perez a number two driver at Red Bull?

Image: Red Bull Racing

What I have a concern with, though, is that in Perez's current trajectory, he will become one of the worst number two drivers in one of the best ever cars. Bottas and Barrichello had some lackluster winless seasons at the top, but they still brought their team back silverware more often than not. Perez must address the recent slide sooner than later to be the buffer between Verstappen and the rest he's meant to be. If not, the Red Bull seat that once answered his prayers might be his last in F1.


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