There could hardly be a starker contrast in fortunes than between Sergio Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo over the last couple of years. The former has transformed from being potentially out of F1 at the end of 2020 to an actual contender in the 2022 world championship, with a pole and a victory already under his belt seven races in.
Ricciardo, by contrast, has fallen from megastar to struggling also-ran fighting for his F1 future in much the same time period.
This is about much more than just how competitive their cars have been. It’s also to do with how well driving styles are suited to particular car traits and it is clear that the 2022 regulation re-set – and the various teams’ reactions to them – has shuffled the driver hierarchy.
Pérez has always enjoyed a good reputation as a hard racer, very tough in defence, great with the tyres and a very safe pair of hands, but not the last word in qualifying speed. It sustained him for many seasons at Sauber and Force India, though he was dropped by McLaren following a disappointing 2013 there alongside Jenson Button. He subsequently served Force India brilliantly well at a time when it was on financially shaky ground, banging in the results, hauling in the points, even garnering the odd podium.
Things changed when Lawrence Stroll bought the team. Lance took one of the seats and the other was earmarked for the highprofile multiple world champion Sebastian Vettel so there was no place there for ‘Checo’.
He already knew this as he won his first grand prix, in Sakhir at the end of 2020, with a typically gritty performance, having been spun to the back on the opening lap.
It was his good fortune that Red Bull at this time was looking for an established, experienced old hand to support Max Verstappen, having found that its promoted junior drivers just could not perform at the required level. Last year Pérez cemented himself in that role with a victory at Baku, there to pick up the pieces after Verstappen’s tyre burst while dominating. That was exactly the sort of role Pérez had been taken on for. If he could do that and be in position to limit the strategy options of the Mercs at any given race, then he was fulfilling the role. It didn’t much matter to the team that he averaged a chunky 0.377sec slower than Verstappen in qualifying. It was an easy decision to re-sign him for ’22.
But come 2022 and instead of the aggressively pointy car of last year in which he struggled to qualify anywhere near Verstappen, he has instead found himself in an RB18 much more amenable to his natural driving style. It lacks the ‘on the nose’ balance of the previous car which to him felt nervously unstable on corner entry but which his team leader Verstappen thrived upon.
Verstappen is less happy with the RB18, as father Jos points out. “It simply doesn’t have the characteristics for his driving style yet. Max has far too little grip at the front axle.”
“Last year Daniel was badly outperformed by team-mate Lando Norris ”
Red Bull’s answer to the new regulations has resulted in this different balance, something only accentuated by the new tyres which compared to before are weaker at the front relative to the rear.
So in the seven races at the time of writing, Pérez had out-qualified Verstappen twice and his average was within less than 0.1sec. He’s now causing headaches on the pitwall as his ideal strategy sometimes interferes with Verstappen’s – and at Monaco his victory took valuable points away from Verstappen’s title challenge. That’s how good Pérez is in this car.
Ricciardo, the swashbuckling Red Bull driver who conjured unlikely victories and went head-to-head with Verstappen for three seasons, was rated vastly higher than Pérez during this time. Upon his transference to Renault he destroyed the highly-rated incumbent Nico Hülkenberg and his replacement, Esteban Ocon. But then McLaren. Yes, he took that great victory for them at Monza last year, but it was a bit of an outlier in a season in which, joining as the big-money superstar, he was badly outperformed by team-mate Lando Norris, who qualified 0.274sec faster and in the comparable sessions was ahead 14-4.
The 2021 McLaren did not have a good front end and in there lay the key to the difference in their performances. Norris has a way of blending the braking and cornering phases with his manipulation of the brakes which Ricciardo just could not match. For his style to really work required the aggressive front end grip of the Red Bulls.
But help seemed to be on the way in the form of the regulation re-set. The new McLaren would not necessarily carry the traits of the ’21 car. Except it has. If anything, the new tyres and the regulation limiting of front suspension geometries which pulled the front ride height down beyond a certain steering angle has made things even worse for Daniel. There seems no light at the end of the tunnel and even though he has an option (on his side) to stay with the team into next year, there are now real doubts about whether he will do so.
Driver performance is not a static thing.
Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark