Perez could sneak an F1 drivers' title – but odds may be stacked unfairly

F1

Sergio Perez's Monaco win drew the Mexican into the championship equation – but does Red Bull want him there? asks Chris Medland

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 06: Race winner Sergio Perez of Mexico and Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 06, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Perez has quietly drawn himself into the championship equation – but he could've been even closer

Red Bull

After the Monaco Grand Prix, I’m a little bit torn but I can’t help still feeling sorry for Sergio Perez. You might have thought his victory would have allayed the impression given a week earlier, but the message was too strong.

In Barcelona, it seemed like Red Bull nailed its colours well and truly to the Max Verstappen mast. And that didn’t exactly come as a surprise – he’s the reigning world champion and has been the team’s leader for a number of years after all – but to do so at such an early stage of the season seemed a little bit premature.

For starters, Verstappen was behind Perez in the early part of that Spanish race because of a mistake of his own making that dropped him to fourth place, and the Mexican duly moved over to allow his team-mate to try and overtake George Russell and make up for the error as quickly as possible.

But having done that, being told to hold station after his first pit stop when he was arriving on much better tyres and clearly had a more reliable car (given Verstappen’s DRS issues) must have been massively frustrating. It did seem unfair at the time, and still does now, because Perez clearly had the potential to clear Russell and set off into clear air, giving him the best chance of making the two-stop strategy work.

11 PEREZ Sergio (mex), Red Bull Racing RB18, action during the Formula 1 Grand Prix de Monaco 2022, 7th round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Circuit de Monaco, from May 27 to 29, 2022 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Perez put himself right where he needed to be in Monaco strategy games

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Red Bull insists the three-stop strategy was the way to go in the end, but some drivers did see the two-stopper through with a degree of success. And tyre management is one of Checo’s strengths, so to then be told not to fight Verstappen and let him through for victory in the final stint when they were going to finish one-two in some order regardless, while a more understandable call, was one that came about because Perez had already been sacrificed far earlier.

Fast forward to Monaco, and I managed to grab Christian Horner as part of the grid walk I do for a US radio channel. And I asked him what the plan was with Perez and Verstappen given the message sent out a week earlier, with Perez the lead car on the grid.

“Checo’s still within a race win of the championship lead so he’s still very much in the championship,” Horner said. “Strategically we’ve got to be sharp today and who knows what the weather’s going to do?”

And I want to focus on both parts of the answer, because Horner’s smart with his wording.

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The first part is very, very true, and does make the way it hampered his chances of getting what could have proven to be Red Bull’s best possible result in Spain even more disappointing. Had Perez won that race from Verstappen, the gap between the two drivers arriving in Monaco would have been 13 points (assuming the defending champion got a chance to take the fastest lap point instead).

Sunday’s win in Monaco would have left him three points off the lead, and level on points with Charles Leclerc. All of which would have come about without it costing Red Bull a single point.

Now, I know that’s all hypothetical, but it was something that Red Bull did not allow to have a chance of playing out, hurting Perez’s race hopes to give an ailing Verstappen a better chance of winning in Spain. And against that backdrop, the second part of Horner’s answer remained telling.

He’d also mentioned the team, but Monaco is a race where everyone knows it is almost impossible to overtake. Realistically, Red Bull was always going to struggle to switch its cars around without a risk of giving up points to Ferrari somewhere, but Horner still hinted the door was open for strategy to be the way Verstappen might end up ahead.

Max Verstappen Sergio Perez Red Bull F1 team

Red Bull appears to be firmly behind Verstappen in its championship approach

Red Bull

Ultimately, Perez drove too well in the crucial moments for that opportunity to arise, nailing his laps on intermediate tyres and being as good as Verstappen was exiting the pits on slicks to stay ahead of Carlos Sainz and retain a lead that Ferrari had allowed him to take.

But it’s not a victory that does anything to suggest Perez is going to be allowed to fight freely for the championship. The lingering feeling from Spain remains, that Verstappen has already been chosen as the driver being prioritised.

It’s a feeling that is surely not misplaced when you take Jos Verstappen’s quotes after Monaco into account, too. Jos complained that Red Bull “exerted little influence to help Max to the front” over Perez.

“That he finished third, he owes to Ferrari’s mistake at that second stop of Charles Leclerc,” Verstappen added. “The championship leader, Max, was not helped in that sense by the chosen strategy. It turned completely to Checo’s favour. That was disappointing to me, and I would have liked it to be different for the championship leader.”

It shows you the expectations within the Verstappen camp, even at a track like Monaco. Jos admits he’s not entirely objective, but says the view is due to his believe his son needs every point to fight Ferrari. I’d argue that’s exactly what Red Bull already showed it would do for him in Barcelona.

Perhaps Red Bull will be proven right much later in the season, if the title fight against Ferrari – and most likely Leclerc – is won by a fine margin that could be traced back to helping Verstappen to maximum points where possible. But Verstappen is far too good to need that this earlier in the year, and right now it feels like Red Bull might be shooting itself in the foot slightly if it continues with that approach in future races.

All things being equal, Verstappen is clearly going to emerge as the top driver out of the two, but all things aren’t always equal. He’s already had two DNFs – compared to one for his team-mate – that have played a major role in the title fight remaining close, and there’s nothing to say there couldn’t be more misfortune that ends up putting Perez in a strong position.

It’s unlikely, I know, but there’s so far to go it just doesn’t feel right to close off that possibility.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: Race winner Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrates with his team by jumping into the pool after the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2022 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A high-quality win in Monaco, but does Perez have full support of his team in championship reckoning?

Red Bull

And that’s what makes me feel sorry for Perez, because if he’s ever going to become world champion, however unlikely that might be going up against Max Verstappen in the same car, he needs everything to come together for him.

Just like Nico Rosberg in 2016, he needs to perform at his very best and likely get fortunate at times when it comes to reliability and race circumstances compared to his team-mate.

At 32, you can see what wins like Monaco mean to Perez as he shed a tear listening to the Mexican anthem on the podium, and under new regulations this could well prove to be his best chance to sneak a title.

But seven days earlier, Red Bull might already have made the call that compounds to reduce his hopes. By not being allowed to maximise his points now, he’s far less likely to be in a position to take on the title charge later in the season if things just happen to fall his way.

We’ll only know if it was the right thing for Red Bull to do at the end of the season, but that doesn’t stop me feeling like the odds are still stacked against Perez a little unfairly, even if he just became a Monaco Grand Prix winner.