After witnessing Sergio Perez fending off a ferocious attack from teammate Max Verstappen who had to settle for at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Christian Horner claimed the Mexican had just driven his greatest race, the Red Bull boss was not alone.
The Red Bull RB19 is a wonderful car, better than the mighty RB18 of last year. Adrian Newey and his design team have produced a 2023 F1 car that is not only extremely fast in the hands of Verstappen, but now it is also a joy for his veteran teammate Perez to drive.
And boy did he put it to good use on Sunday, even before Horner made his statement, it was clear that Perez had indeed delivered a stonker of a defensive race, starting from pole position, while his teammate was down in 15th on the grid.
The Mexican, and everyone else for that matter, knowing only too well that at some point the #1 car would be in his mirrors, his task intensified when the unnecessary safety car erased the handy lead he had before Lance Stroll parked his broken Aston Martin.
This played handsomely into Max’s hands as the concertina effect meant that by lap 25 of the 50 he got by Alonso to take second. At that point, no doubt, everyone went okay that’s it, But Checo was a man on a mission. All he wanted to know was Verstappen’s lap time delta at that stage of the race.
Checo even latched on when his team was BS-ing him about the lap time delta
With his team reading him target times, Perez did the maths and realised they were BS-ing him, put his head down, and drove his own race. At first, Verstappen got the gap into the four-second zone as the pair traded fastest-lap for the fastest-lap.
But the gap remained, even stretched to five seconds, incredibly that’s where it remained, because whatever the Blue car behind could throw at its sister car, it did, Verstappen playing the ‘driveshaft problem’ card late in the race, but Checo was not buying it.
Head down in the lead, he shaded or matched Max here and there by a tenth or so, then would make a big effort and grab a couple of tenths, and this went on for the entire second half of the race, eventually he went on to win by half a dozen seconds. He simply created an impenetrable wall at around the five-second mark.
A true game of cat and mouse, and a masterful display by Perez which Horner noted immediately after the race: “Checo, I think that was the best ever race, managing the pace, the restart and those guys were going absolutely flat out.
“The team, all credit to them, have built an incredible car. What we saw two drivers pushing each other, Max coming through from 15th on the grid – by half distance, he was already in P2. We thought we had an issue with the car, checked the data, and then they were hard at it again.
“They were both pushing hard and Max got the fastest lap of the race, but what a weekend for him – no fault of his own on Saturday with the driveshaft, 15th, he was patient, he picked the cars off – a phenomenal recovery from him.
“We’ve got a great car and two great drivers – we talked about it in the briefing earlier today ‘you’re free to race, but you keep it clean’ – but they’re both competitive. For Checo, that was I think his greatest Grand Prix,” repeated Horner.
Perez had a handle on Verstappen for the first time in a straight fight
With the dust settled after another enchanting Grand Prix, it is obvious to conclude that the Red Bulls are indeed on another planet, maybe another galaxy, because with their drivers going at it full tilt they had at least a one-second advantage in race pace over third-placed Fernando Alonso doing wonders with the Aston Martin, and more like 1.5 to their traditional rivals Mercedes and Ferrari.
We might have scoffed at Checo’s talk of fighting for a world title while in Verstappen’s team but if he can sustain the stellar standard we all saw on Sunday in Jeddah, from now on, we are in for a very interesting world championship fight, shades Lewis Hamilton versus Nico Rosberg.
For the sake of this championship not being decided in Verstappen’s favour by Monza or whatever, Perez is the go-to man to keep this contest alive, with the great car he had on Sunday he showed his team he can not only win but do it by himself too, against the will of Max’s team.
But that’s his job, to pick up the pieces when Verstappen messes up as he did by breaking his car in qualifying, you can’t hit curbs at the speed he did, during his flyer in Q2 on Saturday in Jeddah, and not expect repercussions. Maybe 9-out-of-10 times the RB19 will take it, but when it’s a tad too much it hollers: “Enough!”
And Jos Verstappen seemed to know it too when he turned away (in disgust?) after witnessing his son slow down. His body language was obvious and so familiar, proper karting Dad syndrome after all these years
Will Red Bull allow Checo and Max fight on track without team orders?
Furthermore, when in second, with Perez holding him off relentlessly, with ten to go his pitwall might’ve thought the wiser to come off the gas, gift Checo the win, and preserve the cars for the next 21 races; after all second from 15th is a good recovery at such a treacherous place. And they demolished everyone else in the process.
But that’s not how Max operates, he pursued hard, even going against his engineer’s command not to vie for the fastest lap. Then reporting a ‘driveshaft’ like issue late in the race before nailing it again in futile pursuit of Checo, yet popping the fastest lap at the same time, the extra point enough to keep him ahead in the F1 drivers’ standings after two rounds.
Thus two very different drivers, of different generations, racing for the same team both wanting the F1 title badly, one his first the other his third, Max vs Checo could well become the ‘Drive to Survive’ plot as other teams try to find their way back to the races, in their wake.
All this, of course, provided Perez can sustain the level of driving he attained in Saudi on Sunday, because his teammate will come back even stronger in Melbourne, be sure of that. For that reason, Horner and co. have some serious management decisions to make because there appear to be no rules of engagement set by Red Bull for their drivers to adhere to or at least be aware of.
Which begs the question: Will Red Bull let them fight it out without team orders?