September 18th, 2012 (F1plus / Jack Leslie).- Sergio Perez scored his 3rd podium of the 2012 season a week or so ago, so its still a surprise to remember that this is only his second season in the sport.
His performances have thrown him clearly into the public eye, with rumours circulating of possible moves to Ferrari or McLaren in the not so distant future. So is he F1's brightest young star? I take a look at the Mexican's impressive F1 career and analyse who his rivals are to get one of the top seats in Formula 1.
"Checo", as he is known in the F1 paddock, was racing in GP2 when he caught the eye of F1's most renowned team, Ferrari. They signed him up to their Ferrari Driver Academy, where he was given help promoting and funding. The deal was done just days after he signed for Sauber, becoming the first person in the Ferrari Driver Academy to graduate to the series.
His debut was striking, despite the unfortunate end result. The Mexican crossed the finish line in Australia 1 place ahead of his team mate, an impressive feat in itself. Even more impressive was the position he finished in, 7th. This was thanks to some careful driving on the Pirelli rubber, seeing the Sauber driver enter the pits just once. It was an inspired choice, but he still had 0 points on the board going into round 2 after both Perez and Kobayashi were disqualified for technical infringements. None the less, F1 insiders and paddock dwellers now saw the reason for Ferrari's signing.
The debut season is often seen to be a difficult one, with the learning curve being constantly steep. Perez made his fair share of rookie errors, evident in his 3rd race where he made contact with several drivers. However, the errors came very rarely compared to some of the sports previous rookies, and it’s still evident now that drivers make errors (cough, Maldonado). Despite ending the year 16th in the standings, with half the points of his team mate, Sergio did experience some unfortunate mechanical problems. A gearbox problem in Italy robbed him of a possible 7th place, while a bizarre incident in Malaysia shut down his car after it was hit by debris.
Sergio Perez just seconds after his accident at Monaco in 2011 (LAt Photo)
Of course that hefty Monaco crash robbed him of a possible good result, as did the effects post-crash in Canada. Kamui Kobayashi drove his Sauber to 4th place in the Monaco Grand Prix, showing the car had good pace. Perez has a good reputation around the principality, scoring a GP2 win for Addax in 2010. However coming out of the famous tunnel, he lost control of the car on a bump and spun into the wall. With no way of braking, he braced for the second impact at the end of the chicane. Thanks to the TecPro barriers, he emerged with just concussion and a sprained thigh. He obviously missed the race, but was still feeling ill in Canada a few weeks later. He eventually pulled out of the event, with Sauber hastily replacing him with their 2010 driver De La Rosa. This was an impressive decision by the rookie and showed his maturity. Not all drivers are brave enough to say they do not feel up to it.
So a mix of bad luck, impressive driving (great evidence of this was in Australia, Britain and Japan) and the odd rookie error meant the results were not what was expected. Some drivers in the sport were being classed as "Pay Drivers", but Perez certainly showed his doubters that despite his big sponsors (giving welcome cash to Sauber) he also has the talent.
Of course Perez had numerous rookie rivals in 2011, with Maldonado and Di Resta making their debut too. Maldonado failed to deliver that big rookie result that the other two did, and was pretty underwhelming overall. This is not all his fault though; the machinery produced by Williams was poor in F1's midfield standards and meant he scored just 1 point. He had a number of controversial incidents, most notably turning in on Lewis Hamilton during the Belgian GP qualifying. These incidents did nothing for the Venezuelan's reputation, so the "Pay Driver" term came up again. Maldonado brought important funding to Williams with his backing from the oil company PDVSA. He reportedly brought £45 million to the legendary Grove team, twice as much as 2012 team mate Senna.
Maldonado may have caught the F1 fans attention for all the wrong reasons, but it was the complete opposite for Paul Di Resta. His debut season was littered with small mistakes, but he captured the heart of F1 fans with his impressive drives in Hungary, Singapore and Brazil. Eventually finishing 13th in the constructors with 27 points, he was the rookie champion. However Paul is currently suffering that difficult second season where the results have brought him more points, but less success in comparison to the Force India team’s rivals.
Which brings me back to Perez, despite losing out to Di Resta in the "rookie" stakes, is he overall the better driver? 2012 has definitely helped sway my decision, his talent is undeniable. Malaysia was a brilliant race to watch and I was willing Perez on. He just missed out on the win but Alonso was completely overshadowed by the Mexican. Rightfully so, Sergio sparked a mass interest in the sport in his native country of Mexico. Reports of the country wanting to return to hosting an F1 race circulated around the bustling F1 paddock, and he became a celebrity in his own right.
Checo also scored another podium in Canada, a year after pulling out of the event. 3rd place after starting 15th was completely unexpected. Excluding the podium positions, he has only scored points on 3 other occasions this year. The big haul of points for 2nd in Malaysia, 3rd in Canada and 2nd in Monza has helped him lie 9th in the drivers’ championship. He has had some bad luck too, being taken out of the race at Silverstone thanks to an overly aggressive Maldonado. He was also innocently taken out of the race in Spa by out of control Romain Grosjean.
Perez has been linked to big teams like Ferrari and McLaren, who are notorious for producing world champions. And rightly so, Perez has performed well enough this year to catch their attention. There is the problem of experience though; very few drivers have arrived in these two historic teams after just 2 seasons of racing. Ok there are a few exceptions, Hamilton and Raikkonen being two, but there is always a risk of signing someone like Perez because rookie mistakes or lack of experience can cost constructors or drivers titles. Let’s look at Hamilton, he was thrown into the McLaren seat in 2007 and had he not made those rookie errors he would have been crowned champion. McLaren would have a constructor’s title too, but that’s the way it goes. The decision was made. That does not take anything away from those stunning drivers in Canada, USA and so on.
Luca Di Montezemolo has already said Perez needs “more experience” before he becomes a fully-fledged Ferrari driver. There is sense in this, Ferrari want Perez to be as refined as possible before he makes the big step up to a championship winning team. They will have to beware though, because recent reports suggest McLaren have been eyeing him up too.
Perez celebrating his 2nd place finish at Monza.
Some would say moving to McLaren would be better for Perez, because they can produce a race winning car and McLaren have taken risks on less experienced drivers before. That is of course if Hamilton moves to Mercedes (don’t get me started on that). I’m not sure the 2012 results so far can show Sergio is consistent enough for a drive in a top team. His best bet (in my view) is to stay with Sauber for another year. He could easily claim his debut win with the team and the more experience he gets racing in the midfield, the better prepared he will be for future moves.
He has rivals for those seats though. One of which is Heikki Kovalainen, who really does deserve to be in a front running car. Some said his move to Caterham was unwise and that he would never get back up there, but look what he has done with the car in comparison to Petrov. The Finn has grown immensely as a drive at the now Leafield based team, so a step back could take him two steps ahead? It’s an option for both teams, McLaren were disappointed with Heikki in 08 and 09, but I guarantee if he returns he will be a better driver than he was back then.
So the title “Perez, F1’s brightest young star” is as true as it ever will be. The next Alonso? Quite possibly. If all the young drivers were lit up in the sky, the brightest star would be Perez. He has so much potential. Bags of it. His often understated performances, management of the tyres and overtaking is all genius. I still don’t know how he 1 stopped his debut race, when many others stopped 2 or 3 times.
Let’s say I was Monisha Kaltenborn (hypothetically OK?), I would keep him for 2013. Sauber will get a good financial boost from their constructor’s position so I’m sure they will be challenging at the front of the midfield in 2013. If I was Stefano Dominicalli, I would wait a year and then snap the Mexican up. Martin Whitmarsh? I would take the risk and sign him, if there was a seat available of course.
It’s fair to say, Mexican is in high demand at the moment.