Outside Line: Sergio at 30

It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating the emergence of Sergio Perez onto the Formula 1 scene, when as a fresh-faced 22-year-old driving for Sauber, he came within one small error of victory at the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix.

And yet here we are, eight years later, and that still remains the closest Perez has gotten to standing on the top step of the podium. Obviously, it hasn’t been his only podium in F1, but having just celebrated his 30th birthday on Sunday, it seems a good time to ask why he hasn’t done better.

Certainly, it seemed like he was on his way to stardom after that 2012 season. Two more podiums followed that year before he was snapped-up by McLaren to partner Jenson Button, and all signs pointed to Mexico having its next Ricardo Rodriguez. Instead, he got just one hum-drum season and the Woking outfit decided to toss him aside for another young gun in Kevin Magnussen.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems Perez was very hard done-by – consider both his and Magnussen’s records against Button in the head-to-head:

  • Qualifying: Perez won 10-9, Magnussen lost it by the same score
  • Races: Perez lost 5-12, Magnussen 3-14
  • Points: Perez lost 73-49, Magnussen lost 126-55 – and was even outscored by Perez (now in a Force India), who had 59 points

Obviously neither driver was great against the Briton, but he was a world champion for a reason. At least there was some positive there for Perez in the qualifying battle, and you would think the guy who could score three podiums in a Sauber would earn at least a little slack.

Instead, Ron Dennis – who made his return to McLaren in 2014 after replacing Martin Whitmarsh – was set on bringing-in an in-house talent in Magnussen, and in so doing, forced the then 24-year-old to start over. Apparently, the lesson Button himself represented of a talented driver being prematurely jettisoned by a top team was not one Dennis was interested in learning.

Nevertheless, I’d argue that in his six seasons since leaving, he has become one of the more solid drivers on the grid. His only losing season against a teammate was to Nico Hulkenberg in 2014 (who he subsequently beat the next two years), after which he beat Esteban Ocon in ’17 and ’18, and Lance Stroll last year. Additionally, he was best of all midfield drivers in 2016 and ’17, and has scored a further five podiums – what more could you reasonably ask for from a midfield driver?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting he should instead be in the same position as a Vettel or a Hamilton, but it does surprise me he hasn’t even been considered as a wingman for any more big-team drives. Part of that is understandable: Red Bull are loathe to make outside hires, Ferrari had good driver chemistry, and Mercedes had no need to tinker, but when you consider some of those teams’ number two drivers (not to mention McLaren’s) have really struggled at times – Daniil Kvyat/Pierre Gasly, Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas – well, if I was Perez, I’d be at least a little pissed off.

Even more unfortunate for him, it doesn’t look like another opportunity will come along any time soon – maybe ever. Even if there was a vacancy, he simply doesn’t have the sex-appeal of youngsters like George Russell, or the trophy cabinet of a Daniel Ricciardo, and that means realistically, his only chance of bettering that remarkable day at Sepang is if the 2021 budget cap works wonders for Racing Point. If only for him to get one win out of it, I hope it does – he deserves that much.