“I just need to win every time I have the opportunity to do so,” said Perez. He got a lucky break here with the timing of a safety car just after Verstappen had pitted, and ahead of his own stop, but had looked genuinely faster when chasing in the first stint and keeping Verstappen off his back in the second. “Then at the races where that’s not possible, I have to finish second, to score the result every time. If you are up and down there’s no way you can fight for the championship.”
When the challenge is all about shaving the walls, Perez always features. Entry speeds don’t dominate competitiveness as they do on conventional tracks. It’s about improvisation, confidence and a sensitive throttle foot. Verstappen can be fast anywhere, but around here this weekend he was struggling a little. The front end didn’t give him his usual confidence and he was losing time in the heavy braking demands of Turns 2, 3 and 8. He has tools on his steering wheel to play with which can help in situations like this to give him the strong front end he likes, serenely unconcerned about the rear moving around. But he didn’t key the right combination in – not until about 10 laps from the end, when it was too late.
If Perez had DRS’d his way past… there’d have been a tense atmosphere later
So in the first stint, on the delicate medium tyres almost everyone started with, once past the pole-sitting Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, he was just driving within that mild discomfort and taking care of the tyres, leading and surely on the way to victory. There were a couple of laps before Perez found his way by the Ferrari but on his first clear lap he was 0.7sec faster than the cruising Max had been circulating. Yet he was taking less from the rear tyres, not needing to play with the tools so much as he doesn’t feel the need for that strong front, and is quite happy leaning into the understeer on entry and balancing it with the throttle on exit. He wasn’t running such a high engine braking setting and didn’t feel the need to try to rotate the car on entry from the rear. So his rears weren’t running as hot. That first clear lap got him to within 0.2sec of Max and within another three laps he was within DRS range. He looked all set to put a DRS pass on him at the end of the 10th lap – when Red Bull brought Verstappen in. Ordinarily that would have bought Verstappen a big chunk of undercut time to increase his lead and once onto the very durable hard tyres would no longer have that issue and he’d presumably run then to a routine victory.
Except Nyck de Vries had just brought the safety car out after breaking the AlphaTauri’s track rod against the Turn 5 tyre barrier. The incident happened a few corners before Verstappen was brought in, but before it triggered the safety car. Red Bull figured that de Vries – whose engine was still running – had just run straight on and would rejoin. If that had happened and they’d not brought Verstappen in and Perez had DRS’d his way past… well there’d have been a tense atmosphere there later.
So the safety car sprung Perez (and Leclerc) past Verstappen, but he’d looked capable of doing it anyway. Now that he was in the lead, Perez faced the daunting task of pushing hard enough to keep Verstappen from getting into that 1sec DRS gap (once Max had repassed Leclerc) for the next 40 laps or so. They raced pretty much flat-out for the next 20-odd laps but everything that Verstappen threw at him, Perez had an answer for. Verstappen got to within 1.1sec on the 21st lap, but never as close again. As his tyre temperatures began creeping up he lost touch little by little and with 20 laps to go Perez had broken the Max challenge. He almost threw it away with a hefty hit of the Turn 15 tyre barriers, but got away with it. Both cars had brushed the tyres several times, but that was the biggest hit.