Mexican new wave

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First challenge for McLaren’s latest signing Sergio Pérez – balancing jet lag and press grillings

By Ed Foster

This is unusual for a McLaren driver: Sergio Perez is running late. He flew in from Mexico this morning, spent time at the McLaren Technology Centre meeting ‘the world’s press’ and is now en route to the Hilton hotel by London Bridge, ready for more interviews.

It’s not the first time he’s done a day’s work for his new team, as he’s already spent a day in the McLaren simulator, which was “positive” according to the ex-Sauber driver. It’s been a punishing schedule today, though, and by the time I sit down in front of him he’s stifling a yawn. McLaren, a team famous for making its drivers work hard away from the track as well as on it, has been packing in as much PR time as possible. No doubt his two-year stint at Sauber already feels like a long time ago. The jet lag and constant questions about this new chapter in his life will surely be starting to grate, but he’s now a driver for what he calls “the best team in the world”.

It’s clear that he’s genuinely thrilled about lining up alongside Jenson Button in a car that will give him a chance to win races on a regular basis, as anyone would be, especially if you believe the hardly-contained excitement oozing from Woking about the MP4-28’s potential. “It really feels great,” Perez says after I ask what it’s like being in McLaren-branded clothing for the first time. “To be wearing the kit.., it’s a special day for me. When you first walk into the McLaren Technology Centre it’s the history that strikes you. There’s so much history in those corridors, so many famous names, so many trophies. It gives you a boost to deliver what they’re expecting from you.”

The team will be expecting a lot, and when we’re talking about the trophies McLaren has amassed since 1966 Perez is quick to insert, “I’ll have to add to them.”

Rewind eight years and a young Perez was preparing for his first season of Formula BMW. If someone had told him he’d be a McLaren driver in 2013 would he have believed them? “No, not really!” he replies with a smile. “When I came to Europe my goal was to become a Formula 1 driver, but it seemed very far away. There are never any guarantees that you’re going to make it, but my career went quite well. I made it to Formula 1, I made it into a good team in the shape of Sauber and now I’m with the best team in the world.”

The ‘best’ team for the 23-year-old was rumoured to be Ferrari earlier in the 2012 season, despite Luca di Montezemolo’s remarks that Perez was too inexperienced to drive for the Scuderia. “I was surprised when McLaren approached me,” he admits, “but I did have options from some other top teams as well.” Which other teams? “I think it’s easy to tell, there’s no point in me saying… I first met Martin [Whitmarsh] in Hungary, the last race before the summer break. The opportunity to race developed a bit more over the summer break and then we did it [the deal].” As many of you will remember, at September’s Singapore Grand Prix McLaren was still relaxed about Lewis Hamilton staying with the team, yet only days later Perez had been announced as the 2008 World Champion’s replacement.

The Pérez sitting in front of me now is unfazed about stepping into the shoes of one of the fastest drivers the sport has ever seeen. “He was the last champion for the team so it won’t be easy replacing him. I’m confident that I can do a good job, though. When you get into a McLaren seat you have to be on the pace immediately. Your goal has to be to win. If I don’t I’ll be disappointed.”

Pérez splits opinion and while the last comment is what every driver on the grid would say in his situation, some will take it as arrogant from someone who has only been on the podium three times. Is this founded? Despite the jetlag and the numerous interviews he’s already done he is far from aloof, and not a bit arrogant. “From the outside it’s difficult to get to know me,” he says. “Sure, some people will think I’m arrogant just because I drive for the best team. I don’t think that’s the case… I’m a human with normal problems, same as everybody else. Driving for McLaren is a great honour, but I’m just a normal guy.

“I’ve got a lot to learn from Jenson. He’s the most experienced driver in F1 at the moment and he’s a great team-mate to have, no? He’s a good guy, a driver that will guarantee good results, that will always be up there. The target is to learn from him, but the main target is to beat him as well.”

If the Pérez from the 2012 Malaysian or Italian Grands Prix is in the McLaren then he might well beat Button — but the Perez from the last quarter of 2012? “I made some mistakes during the latter part of 2012,” he admits when asked what went wrong. “Most of that, though, came from the lack of pace — we lost quite a lot towards the end of the year.”

It’s doubtful that his McLaren will ever ‘lose’ that much pace during a season, and he will be expected to perform as soon as he takes to the track in pre-season testing. But will the duo of Perez and Button be able to give McLaren the results they need to win their first Constructors’ Championship since 1998? And will Perez be able to match Button with his wise head and deft touch on the wheel? We’ll only be able to answer those when the lights go out in Melbourne.

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