The pundits have billed this season as the showdown between the seven-time World Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton and the immensely talented Max Verstappen, who finally has the machinery to compete for a World Championship.
While it is exciting for fans and the media to have a focal point for the season’s drama, it has ignored the other drivers with similar equipment that could spoil the Hamilton-Verstappen party. I am talking about Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez, but specifically Perez.
Sergio Perez has quickly acclimated to life at Red Bull and has driven impressively in his first six races for the team. He has finished in the points on five out of six and won the last time out in Azerbaijan. This record of consistently scoring points has put him in third behind the top two contenders for the Championship.
Granted, the win came after Verstappen suffered a tire blowout, and Hamilton made a mistake at the restart. Still, the fact that Sergio was there to make the most of the top two contenders’ misfortune is precisely what Sergio has to do to keep his seat at Red Bull and maybe even challenge for the World Championship himself.
Great start to life in Red Bull’s cursed seat
When Racing Point decided to let go of Sergio Perez in favor of Sebastian Vettel last season, it looked to many as if Sergio’s F1 career was done. Most teams already had drivers confirmed for the 2021 season. The one team that seemed likely to have a seat was Red Bull after Alex Albion’s disappointing showing in 2020.
However, as likely as it was that Red Bull would move on from Alex Albion, it was very unlikely that Sergio Perez would get the call-up. Red Bull is notorious for hiring from their junior program, with the last driver they hired who wasn’t part of their driver development program being Australian Mark Webber.
Unlike most teams, Red Bull has a junior team in F1 called AlphaTauri. However, in 2020, Red Bull found themselves in the unwanted situation of having already promoted and dishonorably demoted both the drivers at Alpha Tauri at the time. Daniil Kvyat had been promoted in 2015 when Sebastian Vettel moved to Ferrari. He was then demoted in 2016 during the season at Barcelona to promote Max Verstappen. Verstappen went on to win the race, and Daniil Kvyat would never race for Red Bull again.
The other Alpha Tauri driver who also wasn’t an option for Red Bull was Pierre Gasly, who got a shot in the Red Bull when Daniel Ricciardo left for Renault in 2019. Gasly only lasted half a season and was replaced by Alex Albion at the Belgian Grand Prix.
This is just a snapshot of the drama that Sergio Perez walked into at the beginning of the season. A team with a fast car that is difficult to drive for anyone other than Max Verstappen and a trigger-happy HR manager who fires anyone that can’t keep up with Max’s impossibly high standards.
That didn’t phase Checo (Sergio) as he took the time he needed to get up to speed with the team and the car and delivered his first win for the team in just his sixth race, fighting off Hamilton for the win no less. While it is still early days in the season, I’d say that Sergio’s job is already more secure than Gasly, Kvyat, and Albion’s ever were.
Red Bull finally have two horses in the World Championship race
Sergio’s win in Azerbaijan means that Red Bull finally has two fast drivers that can challenge for victories regularly and help the team put together a decent bid for the Constructors’ World Championship. This is why Red Bull has been firing a driver every season since Daniel Ricciardo left at the end of the 2018 season.
Red Bull has been unable to compete in the Constructors’ Championship for a while now because they only had one driver capable of extracting the most from the car consistently. With his win in Azerbaijan, Sergio became the first driver other than Verstappen to win for Red Bull since Daniel Ricciardo’s last win in Monaco 2018.
With Sergio performing the way he is, Red Bull can set their sights on both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships since they have both the car and the drivers capable of scoring maximum points regularly. The one question that Red Bull still has to answer is what kind of supporting driver Sergio Perez will be.
Is he going to be like Valtteri Bottas, who is comfortable regularly finishing behind his teammate with the odd win every now and then, or is he going to be like Nico Rosberg, who sees himself every bit as likely to win the Championship as his teammate who is the team’s favorite.
And with Hamilton not giving up the championship battle yet, Red Bull will hope that Sergio is more like Valtteri. Otherwise, he might end up taking crucial championship points from Verstappen and giving the advantage to Hamilton.