The long-running saga of who drives the second Red Bull in 2021 finally came to a conclusion last week with the not-unexpected news that Sergio Perez would be replacing Alex Albon, who would be standing down to be the team’s reserve driver.
Perez has enjoyed a terrific season, topped by that wonderful drive from last to first in Sakhir at the penultimate round. One hundred and ninety races into his career, he finally joined the ranks of grand prix winners.
Albon by contrast endured an awful season, constantly referenced to Max Verstappen in the other car and constantly falling short – by an average of around half-a-second in qualifying, an intolerably large gap in current era F1. In Albon’s final race for the team, in Abu Dhabi, he delivered the sort of job the team had needed from him all year, but which he’d failed to deliver. With Verstappen fighting the two Mercedes, they were prevented from splitting off into opposing strategies in an attempt at pincering Verstappen. Because if they had done so, the car pitting would have rejoined the race behind Albon. It was highly unusual for Albon in the latter stages of the race to be in the pit stop window of Mercedes. But he was on this occasion and for once Red Bull was able to operate as a squadron on race day, neutralising Merc’s extra gunning power. It was good but it was too little, too late.
The Red Bull, even when it was working well – which the RB16 wasn’t always – was a demanding drive. It derived its lap time from being faster on corner entry into slow turns than other cars. It has extremely quick rotation and could be pointed at the apex almost instantly. But for that to work requires the rear grip to support it at low speeds – and the Red Bull seemed to have a sort of on/off switch for rear grip, as if there was some aerodynamic glitch which made it the airflow to the rear a little stall-prone in such situations. So the team would move the aero balance rearward in an attempt at taming that trait – and that would then see the car understeering through faster corners. The window in which it worked was slit-like.
Perez is the same formidable driver he’s always been – but in a much more competitive car
Verstappen was able to ride it out. He’s an extraordinary driver who can be instantly on the limit of a car, regardless of its traits. Albon, in just his second season of F1, was not equipped to be measured directly against Verstappen in such a car. His confidence quickly spiralled downwards. Once he’d qualified behind slower cars it was even worse because they would invariably be faster on the straights than the high-downforce Red Bull. So he’d end up fighting in the mid-pack with McLarens and Renaults as Verstappen unencumbered just stretched further away each lap, giving his tyres a far easier time into the bargain. Race day tended to make things look even worse than they really were.
Perez, with years of experience in his data banks, finally got to enjoy a really good car for the first time. In his tenth season. As Racing Point began the transformation from budget-strapped tail-ender to fully-financed and heavily upgraded contender, with a copy of last year’s best car to hurry that process along, Perez was rewarded for all those years of struggle when he’d been able to conjure some remarkable results from less than great cars – usually on account of his uncanny ability with the tyres giving him access to race strategies out of reach to the cars around him. In addition he has great racecraft and is super-hard in defence. You don’t go up against Perez in a 50/50 move. He is able to tread that very fine line between hard and unfair. All round, he is a formidable package.
But perception is all – and the perception of this year is that he has been brilliant. The reality is he’s the same formidable driver he’s always been – but in a much more competitive car, and with a team-mate in Lance Stroll, who lacks consistency at this still-early stage in his career. Perez was not night and day quicker than Stroll – the score between them where comparison was possible was 7-5 in Perez’s favour and the average qualifying advantage only 0.145sec, though it was Stroll who scored the team’s only pole position. Race day was invariably a different story, of course, where the multi-faceted nature of Perez’s skill was more heavily rewarded.
Consider those perceptions. Valtteri Bottas’ stock is not high after yet another season of being soundly thrashed by Lewis Hamilton. He gets a lot of the fans’ frustration about the one-sided nature of recent seasons vented at him. But as a mental exercise, swap Bottas and Perez around in the season just gone, with Bottas leading Racing Point in the pink Mercedes, Perez in the works Mercedes alongside Hamilton. Bottas’ stock would be sky-high. Perez’s would be sagging.
All of which is leading to the point about just what a tough gig Perez has got in store as Verstappen’s team-mate in a probably-edgy Red Bull. Perez’s style is silky smooth, not ‘pitch and catch’ fast like Verstappen’s. Will he do the job that Red Bull was seeking from Albon of being a strong support on race day? Absolutely. In that sense, he will be Red Bull’s Bottas. Will he provide any noticeable in-team competition for Verstappen over the season? I’d be amazed if that were the case. He fully deserves this opportunity and it would have been a travesty if there’d been no place for him in the F1 grid next year. But he’s got one hell of a job on his hands now.