Onus is on Perez to keep the 2023 season alive as Verstappen threatens to drive away with it 

After a promising start, the Mexican driver seems to have lost the plot, allowing the reigning champion and Red Bull teammate to take a sizeable lead of 53 points after seven races

June 09, 2023 12:58 am | Updated 12:00 pm IST

Bull run: After winning five of the first seven races, Verstappen looks to etch his name in the history books with a hat-trick of titles. Perez needs to dig deep to make a fight of it. 

Bull run: After winning five of the first seven races, Verstappen looks to etch his name in the history books with a hat-trick of titles. Perez needs to dig deep to make a fight of it.  | Photo Credit: AFP

Formula One is going through a period of growth with sky-high interest and popularity across the globe. It is a remarkable change for a sport that was always on the precipice of crisis in the last decade.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, F1 was one of the first sports to feel the pinch, as the Australian Grand Prix had to be cancelled days before the start of the season. For a sport that rides on hundreds of millions of dollars in running costs and where teams seldom make money, it faced a dire future as the world came to a grinding halt.

But, like every cloud has a silver lining, the time when the world was locked up allowed people to learn more about the sport with the ‘Drive to Survive’ series. It also accelerated a much-needed regulatory change in the form of a budget cap to end the arms race that had plagued the sport for the last few decades.

Max Verstappen, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez during practice.

Max Verstappen, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez during practice. | Photo Credit: Reuters

When racing resumed later that year, there was a massive interest in the season despite Lewis Hamilton cruising to his seventh world title as he equalled Michael Schumacher’s record.

Shot in the arm

The shot in the arm came the following year when the title fight between Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen went down to the wire. The controversy surrounding how the title race was decided on the last lap of the final race in Abu Dhabi only ratcheted up the interest level as the sport crowned a new champion.

Ever since Verstappen ascended to the top, the sport is witnessing one of the most talented drivers to have ever turned a wheel operate at his absolute best.

While watching great masters of sport do their thing at their peak is exciting, the lack of a strong challenger can damage the sport as the buzz could quickly dwindle if results become easily predictable.

F1 is no stranger to such occurrences when interest waned during Michael Schumacher’s heyday at Ferrari or even recently when Mercedes dominated the sport from 2014.

In 2022, Ferrari and Charles Leclerc posed a small challenge, at least in the early part of the season, before Verstappen sleepwalked to his second title with four races left to spare.

With the new rules introduced last year, Red Bull was able to steal a march over its rivals as it sealed both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles with relative ease. So coming into the second year of the rule cycle, there was hope that rival teams, especially the big ones like Ferrari and Mercedes, would close the gap.

But one-third of the way into the current season, it is pretty clear that the crowns will likely stay in Milton Keynes (Red Bull Racing’s base in the UK).

In the seven races held so far, only once has a Red Bull car not been in pole position — Leclerc in Baku — with Verstappen and his teammate Sergio Perez sharing the spoils.

When there is a dominant car, the title battle can get dreary quickly, with the only chance for a competitive fight predicated on the teammates of the team being equally matched.

Iconic battles

F1 has seen some iconic battles like these: Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in McLaren (1988, 1989) and more recently with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg when they were teammates at Mercedes.

For the 2023 season to have some life, Perez needed to step up in a team built around his teammate and rival.

And after the first four races, even as it became evident the fight would be between the Red Bull drivers, the Mexican driver did just that to win two.

Perez has always done well in street circuits, and his wins came in such venues in Jeddah and Baku. However, to sustain a title challenge, a driver must not only win on days when things fall in place or at circuits where he goes well but also be able to limit the damage in races where your rival has an edge. It is this second trait that Perez has been found wanting as his title campaign has fallen off the rails.

Contrast this with Verstappen, whose worst finishes this year have been a pair of second-place finishes in races Perez won.

Ever since 2021, it has been tough to find any chinks in Verstappen’s armour, and the mistakes he committed could be just a handful spread over more than 50 races.

The 25-year-old’s level is close to what Roger Federer showed at Wimbledon between 2003 and 2007 or Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

To illustrate, in the last two races in Monaco and Spain, Verstappen stamped his authority with wins from the pole position dominating the field with eye-popping margins. In contrast, the Mexican driver has committed a series of errors, especially in qualifying, that has left him 53 points behind his teammate.

With a series of more conventional tracks in the next few months, where Verstappen generally tends to have the upper hand, Perez has little hope.

Left-handed compliment

Even Red Bull team boss Christian Horner does not think much about Perez’s chances when he gave a left-handed compliment, saying he expects his driver to do better now that the pressure of fighting for the title is not there anymore.

The statement doesn’t scream confidence when there are still 15 races left in the season, and a 53-point deficit is not insurmountable, but the grim truth is that it is an honest and accurate summary of where the title race stands today.

If Perez wants to give a fitting reply to his critics and even his team’s boss, he needs to quickly find some mojo when the F1 caravan regroups in Canada. The layout of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is like a street circuit and something that can suit Perez’s strengths. He has gone well here, taking his second podium for Sauber back in 2012 and will hope some fond memories can revive his campaign.

More importantly, Perez’s form is crucial to infuse some much-needed life into the rest of the season from a sporting standpoint, and the bosses at Formula One will be desperately hoping the title race stays alive as long as possible so that hard-found gains for the sport doesn’t fizzle out quickly.

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