Perez: the fastest Mexican for 41 years

by Paul Fearnley on 29th March 2012

They have made the right PC noises since, reaffirmed their commitment to each other, Ferrari, Felipe and Fernando – Alonso would say that, wouldn’t he? – but Massa must know that that was the future looming in his mirrors in Malaysia.

There, like a figure from an MC Escher drawing – same racetrack, different dimension – was his team leader, winning the unwinnable despite being hounded by the astounding Sergio Perez, the man (now hotly) tipped as Massa’s replacement. Felipe avoided being doubled – just – but can’t have enjoyed that lonely last lap to that lonely 15th place: too much time to think. Should he prove able to reverse the momentum that this scenario has gained in recent weeks, it will be the Brazilian’s greatest achievement in Formula 1.

Perez also played it down, committing his (near) future to Sauber. Time is on his side at just turned 22. OK, a probable victory slipped away on that damp kerb, but at least a wheel-banging session with a potential employer’s (current) favourite son had been averted. His ‘Osmonds’ smile on the podium confirmed that second place was fine and dandy, thanks.

That said, he seemed keener to win than did his team: a-lap-late stops for inters, then slicks, plus a cautionary radio message. No Ferrari engines, no racing, I guess.

That the Sauber’s gentleness on its tyres is compounded by Perez’ velvet-gloved style has been obvious since his one-stopping debut in Melbourne last year. What was new last Sunday was the iron fist that he made of an unfamiliarly pressured situation, on the sort of topsy-turvy grey day that allowed the Senna shine to burst through in 1984. Perez’ stop for wets at the end of the first lap was a strategy familiar to many ambitious young men who have driven for a hopeful mid-grid team: a long shot. What was unusual about his, however, was that it appeared odds-on to succeed for much of the race. He seized the moment, switched his rubber on – wets, inters and (harder, Prime) slicks – and only let go very briefly during the remaining 55 laps. His fractional error, when it came, was a surprise. That’s how good he looked.

One performance does not a career make – don’t forget, team-mate Kamui Kobayashi outpointed him last season – but Mexico’s long wait for a new F1 star might be over: Perez’ podium was his country’s first since Pedro Rodríguez was beaten, by a Ferrari – Jacky Ickx’s – at a soaking wet Zandvoort 41 years ago. For a car-crazy culture – motor sport doesn’t get any crazier than the Carrera Panamericana – that’s a surprisingly long time.

Ricardo Rodríguez (above, behind Masten Gregory), two years younger than brother Pedro, was Mexico’s first – a stunning second on the grid for his Grand Prix debut, for Ferrari, at Monza. Just over a year later he was dead, at 20, killed while gunning for pole in an unfamiliar Lotus 24 in front of his home fans. Yes, he was a little headstrong still, but a mechanical failure – right-rear suspension – has never been ruled out.

Pedro was its second, in 1963 – but only by a race, from Moisés Solana. The latter was a professional player of jai alai, a Latin mix of squash and wickerwork that’s fast, dangerous – a ball of tightly bound metal strands sheathed in goat skin reaches 180mph as it’s hurled from a curved woven basket that extends from the arm – and lucrative. Colin Chapman was never averse to farming out a spare Lotus to a paying driver at the fag end of a season, and Solana was the most capable of these bar Pedro. In six GPs ‘with’ Team Lotus – he also raced a Centro Sud-run BRM and a works Cooper-Maserati – he tended to qualify extremely competently, only to suffer mechanical fragility in the races. He was killed in 1969 while contesting a local hillclimb in a McLaren M6B sports car.

Pedro (above) was the best of them, although his single-seater career was a slow-burner; his brother’s death understandably shook the wind from his sails for a time. By 1971, however, with two GP wins and several astounding performances, come rain or shine, in Gulf Porsche 917s under his trademark deerstalker, he was considered a top-liner. Yet he couldn’t stop himself contesting a footling Interserie race in a privateer Ferrari. He simply loved to race – and died because of it.

And then there was Héctor Rebaque, who once drove a Brabham that was so fast that he qualified it sixth and was running an assured second in the race when its rotor arm broke. Three times he finished fourth during that 1981 season, but in truth he was never a match for his machinery.

And now there’s ‘Checo’ Perez. He stood out in Malaysia, but there are no guarantees even for the talented rich. For not only is this year’s grid packed with world champions, its ‘next generation’ is formidable as well. Of them, only Lotus’s Romain Grosjean was irretrievably caught out by the tricky conditions at Sepang. (Phew, they’re human.) Bruno Senna – all but invisible on BBC’s otherwise excellent highlights – suddenly emerged, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, in sixth place, having dropped to dead last because of a first-lap tangle with his Williams team-mate. Paul Di Resta was again commendably collected and calculated, as was his Force India team-mate, Nico Hulkenberg: seventh and ninth. And Jean-Éric Vergne (below) – an extended, brave, smooth, opportunistic run on inters – and Daniel Ricciardo – the first to switch to slicks, and to conclusively prove that to be the correct choice – also impressed: eighth and, er, 12th. (That’s one-all at Toro Rosso by the way.)

Any of these guys could be plugged into a Ferrari tomorrow and do a better job than the current-spec’ Massa. In contrast to his lack of lustre, they shone – in and out of their cars – and brimmed with confidence: thrills, without spilling over.

Youthful inexperience has been dying out as an excuse since the mid-1950s, when those precocious Rodríguez boys began racing Jags, Porsches and Ferraris in their mid-teens. Perez and his ilk, despite an imposed shortage of testing miles, have rendered it extinct. Dinosaurs, beware.

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