Sergio Perez is trying to match Max the brave way — MPH

Mark Hughes

Sergio Perez's quest to find the pace of his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen promises to be an intriguing journey, writes Mark Hughes

Blurred picture of Sergio Perez Red Bull at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Aside from it being the second instalment of the Mercedes/Red Bull contest, Imola this weekend also offers further insight on the intriguing prospects of Sergio Perez at Red Bull. We didn’t get to see his full potential relative to Max Verstappen in Bahrain, where he started the race from the pitlane and where, in qualifying, his bid to get through Q2 on the mediums failed, leaving him only 11th fastest.

As would be expected, he drove a good race through the field to finish fifth. His passing moves were quickly accomplished, losing him the minimum of time, and his race pace in clear air was comparable with Verstappen’s (though everyone is simply driving to the temperature of the left-rear tyre there in the race). “We found something on the car after the race which explained the problem in Q2,” he revealed at Imola. It’s believed to be connected to the braking system. Even with that problem, he was within 0.325sec of Verstappen in Q2. That’s quite a lot, sure. But in the context of the average deficit to Verstappen of Alex Albon last year (0.494sec) and Pierre Gasly the year before (0.567sec), it wasn’t disastrous. Had he got through to Q3 and repeated that 0.325sec deficit to Verstappen there, he’d have been on the front row – at least on the dummy grid before the electrical cut-out.

Had he not had the brake problem in Q2, nor the electrical issue on the formation lap and he’d started from the front row, the Bahrain Grand Prix would likely have looked very different, as Red Bull would have been able to use him against the two Mercs strategically and Lewis Hamilton might well not have been able to gain track position from Red Bull at the first stops – the foundation to Hamilton’s victory.

Red Bull of Sergio Perez at the Bahrain Grand Prix

Challenging set-up makes it tricky to master the Red Bull

Grand Prix Photo

But that’s all just theory. If it all comes together for Perez in Imola, things could get very interesting, even though he accepts he is not yet totally at one with the car and not on Verstappen’s pace. “In general it’s about understanding how the car works,” he said yesterday, “and having that confidence with the car. I made huge steps in Bahrain in understanding the car. It would be very easy to make changes and get lost in going in a direction that doesn’t make the car go faster. We have a pretty good reference in Max, the way he’s driving the car, and which issues he’s chasing. That’s a key area: trying not to go too far apart and he has a pretty good baseline in terms of how to extract the maximum out of the car. So I think we need to be in that operating area as much as possible.”

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Verstappen is a staggeringly fast driver. That much is hardly ‘hold the front page’ news. But what he is particularly adept at is maximising a set-up that is challenging but super-fast, with lots of front end grip. He can work in that super-narrow margin where, in the very first part of a slow corner entry, the rear almost cannot keep up with the lateral acceleration induced by the front. Any more and it would break into a time-consuming slide. The natural tendency for most drivers trying this car would be to tame the set up a little, make it less on the edge. That would make it easier to drive consistently – but it would also ultimately be slower. The super-quick rotation of the car into slow corners is worth valuable lap time if it’s not subsequently cancelled out by a wayward rear.

So as Verstappen’s team-mate you have a difficult choice: to retain that set-up and try to adapt your driving around what will feel a very nervous car, or to insist that the fastest way for you personally to get around the track is to adapt the car more to how you drive by calming its behaviour a little. Perez, probably encouraged by the team, has clearly opted for the first approach. Which is brave.

Watching how this evolves is set to be one of the more fascinating aspects of this season.