“Not happy, as it is not where I should finish.”
Those were the words of Sergio Perez on Sunday night after coming home fourth for Red Bull in Portimao, securing his best result for the team so far. It’s a comment that echoes his response to qualifying second in Imola, where he said he should have been on pole but for a small error.
And it also shows just how high Perez’s standards are. The Mexican is expecting a lot from himself now he has the chance to race at the front with Red Bull. And when I spoke to him about the opportunity he has been given in 2021, Perez made clear that he is never going to be satisfied by simply doing a better job than the drivers who went before him.
“Obviously every time I put this shirt on it’s great excitement and a great honor, but we are now into business and it’s about delivering on track,” Perez says.
“If you consider that I only met the team early in January, everything was really like, ‘let’s get into it’ and we didn’t have a honeymoon period. We basically went straight into it and there’s been a lot of work with adaptation into the team. So we’ve been flat-out basically since January, non-stop.
“It’s a massive opportunity, that’s for sure, and I’m very happy to be here. I’m really excited and just looking forward to his year, because we have a very good car with us and a car that can definitely challenge for the title.”
But thoughts of fighting for the championship himself feel a long way off right now. In part,that is due to the excellent performances of Max Verstappen, but a larger factor is the time it is taking for Perez to get up to speed against the top three as he adapts to a new team and new car.
“You come from a car that is different and you are just learning how to get the most out of a car – it takes some time,” he says. “Also with the team; they are getting to know my driving style, my preferences, my view of things and me working with them. So it’s all about the package, getting it to work and getting to know each other.
“I think my style of driving is where I need to focus most. Every team achieves the lap time in very different ways, and just adapting myself to a new style and way of achieving the lap time has been the biggest challenge. That means, as a driver, changing your approach, and that’s not very natural because you have developed a certain style that works with one car, and now you have to adapt to a new one. That’s been the biggest challenge.
“And the biggest positive of all has been the pace. The pace, and the pace evolution – we’ve seen how much we have evolved from the first races, and the qualifying pace and race pace has been there. The results haven’t been there, but the promising thing is that the pace is very much there.
The Perez/Red Bull integration process has been a two-way street, but the Mexican is encouraged by his early-season pace. Mauger/Motorsport Images
“It is surprising to be honest, especially in Imola. It’s a unique place; it’s a place where you need a lot of confidence with your car, and that really surprised me – how much progression I was able to do through qualifying and through the weekend in general; how much we were able to step up.”
The Imola qualifying performance made a lot of people sit up and take notice. It proved his potential to be right on the pace, and came earlier in the season than might have been expected. That said, the result still didn’t follow. He threw away solid points at Imola, and then fell foul of something both Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly regularly did at Red Bull last weekend, dropping behind a midfield car at the start and failing to clear it quickly enough to be in the reckoning at the front.
But Perez isn’t worried about what went before at Red Bull, because he feels his experience and past results allow him to have a more relaxed approach than perhaps a young driver can.
“It’s hard to explain, but I’ve been in this business so long that I’m very comfortable with myself, and I’m very comfortable with the career that I’ve had,” he says. “It’s not like those early years where you are under a lot of pressure because it can change your life a lot if you don’t do one year, or go onto the next.
“In the position I am, I’ve done so well over the past years, I’ve had a great career, I know my level and I know what I can deliver. I’m very happy with what I have achieved, and if there is more to come, great, but I’m not impatient. I just want to deliver to my maximum, and I know that can be really high.
In Verstappen, Perez has a tough benchmark – but not an insurmountable one/ Tee/Motorsport Images
“Obviously I think getting into Red Bull with experience is a massive help. I would say that it’s sometimes tougher for youngsters in the way that you need experience to get the most out of it. As is often the case in F1, you really need that experience under your belt, and you need to be in a comfortable place with yourself. So definitely that is a good advantage on my side.”
While Portimao didn’t pan out as he’d hoped, Perez admits his confidence in his ability to beat Verstappen only grew with his Imola qualifying performance, as he backed it up with a lap a little over 0.1s off his teammate last weekend. He insists it’s not just the highly-rated Dutchman that he’s focused on.
“I always believe in myself when things go wrong or right, I believe that you just have a lot of work to do to be able to feel comfortable with the car and just keep that level,” he says. “I very much know that if I put everything together perfectly and I reach my ultimate level, then I can beat anyone. But I was surprised in my second race in a place like Imola to be able to put in that lap time.
“The target is to beat everyone this weekend! I want to beat everyone.”