One of the most telling elements of the mighty duel between 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix winner Sergio Perez and runner-up Max Verstappen, was the radio comms between the Red Bull pit wall and their drivers during the race in Jeddah.
It was a comprehensive one-two for the reigning World Champions, with maximum points including the fastest lap of the race to Verstappen, keeping him a point ahead of Perez heading to Round 3, in Melbourne this weekend.
For the first time in 45 races as teammates, Perez matched Verstappen lap-for-lap, soaked up everything the Dutchman had to offer, triggering hopes that Max won’t run away with this title as he did with last year’s – otherwise this season could already be dead in the water.
Thus, with Verstappen wounded in Jeddah and looking for an assertive recovery in Melbourne, much more of the masterful Perez we saw two Sundays ago, is needed to keep this 2023 F1 title race alive. Their rivals – barring Aston Martin, perhaps – have been caught with their pants down, all failing in their jobs this past winter.
But the fate of others was hardly on the mind of the rampaging Bulls up front. Instead, it was an intriguing game of cat and mouse between Max and Checo, the pair trading fastest laps while deciphering the mixed messages coming over the radio from their strategists.
Our colleagues at RN365 published a timeline of team-to-driver communications during the race in Jeddah, which makes for an intriguing read, shedding light on what may be a chink in the formidable Red Bull armour this season.
Red Bull Radio Jeddah: Perez and Hugh Bird; Verstappen and Gianpiero Lambiase:
Verstappen & engineer Lambiase
Perez & engineer Bird
VER: I keep losing the rear. Am I dragging the rear too much on entry?
BIR: 32.2 for Max. Gap 4.4
LAM: Ok standby
LAM: Negative Max
VER: I feel like the driveshaft is running a bit rough.
PER: I’m starting to feel some vibrations from the rear axle
LAM: It’s just the B-Bal offset Max, can’t do anything more on the B-Bal itself
BIR: Ok copy that Checo. And we’ve got 14 laps remaining
VER: I said driveshaft
LAM: Ok standby
VER: It makes like a weird noise at high speeds
LAM: We are happy at the moment Max. Happy at the moment
BIR: 32.3 for Max. Gap 4.5
LAM: Ok Max that was track limits for Turn 23 again. We will like to target a 33.0. 33.0.
BIR: Ok back to target now. So we’re just covering Fernando he is doing 33.1
LAM: Max any more feedback on that issue from before?
PER: Sorry repeat
VER: Well it’s still there
BIR: Target lap time 33.0. Max targetting the same. For reference that is +0.8 on the dash. +0.8.
LAM: Ok understood. Ok target 33.0. 33.0
PER: I’m having a bit of a long brake pedal
LAM: That’s 33.0
BIR: Yeah copy we’re having a look
LAM: Max, confirm 33.0
LAM: 33.0. 33.0
BIR: Target 32.6. +0.4
PER: Is Max doing the same?
BIR: Max’s last lap is 32.6
PER: Then why did you tell me 33:0?
BIR: Just target plus four, jobs a good’un
PER: We are pushing without a reason guys, not smart to do
BIR: Your lap 32.6. Max’s lap 32.6
PER: Guys we don’t really need this
BIR: 8 laps to go
PER: Let’s go. Let’s go do 33.0
GP: Max can you target 33:0 please?
PER: What is the gap?
BIR: Gap is 4.3
PER: So are we pushing now?
BIR: You’re free to push. Free to push
GP: 5 laps remaining coming up. Gap is 5
BIR: 5 laps to go. Target +0.8. Gap 5.5 seconds
VER: What’s the fastest lap?
GP: We’re not concerned about that at the moment Max
BIR: Max’s last lap 33.0
VER: Yeah but I am
GP: So 32.1, 32.1
PER: What is the fastest lap at the moment?
BIR: You’ve got the fastest lap. That’s a 32.1
PER: Did we get the fastest lap in the end or?
BIR: You were pipped on the last lap
PER: Ah, great! Aha!
The chink in RBR’s armour? “Then why did you tell me 33:0?”
Were Perez’s pitwall slowing him down so Verstappen could catch him? If anyone was Checo, they would be asking that question all night long at the debrief, until satisfied with the answer. Because it would mean traitors on his side of the garage too? His own crew pushing for Max!
Seriously, what answer would pacify the Mexican in the wake of his greatest drive for the team? The official script is at Team Verstappen, Perez is there to help, move aside or, as we witnessed, slow him down inadvertently, slyly as they seemed to do in Jeddah.
Whatever the case, the Perez camp will be on high alert to ensure that Verstappen isn’t being favoured, or at least that the veteran isn’t being tripped up, because the attempt to deny him victory with the wrong lap time delta is pretty blatant.
Notably, as the chatter on lap 45 indicates, against his team’s wishes Max bagged the fastest lap point late in the race, also to Checo’s chagrin.
As Perez finds sparkling form and Verstappen retaliates, that ‘chink’ is sure to bite them again and will be cleared up only when RBR bosses Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have a sit-down with their drivers and state publically what the rules of engagement, anything blurry between the duo can have serious consequences.
F1 history has shown how ugly it can get between warring teammates HAM-ROS is a relatively recent one but mild compared to the extreme, VIL-PIR in the eighties. After all, F1 is a sport where to win, you first have to beat your teammate, destroy him preferably. Is that the plan for Checo?
Red Bull know a thing or two about warring drivers aka Vettel vs Webber
Internal friction is nothing new to Red Bull. The partnership between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber is a case in point, the German was clearly the favoured driver much to the Australian’s consternation at first, but then, inadvertently or not, he reluctantly accepted it.
Next came Daniel Ricciardo who sent Vettel packing to Ferrari, the team’s second Aussie becoming the blue-eyed boy in the German’s stead. But not for long…
Then came Verstappen, the next chosen one, the real heir to Vettel, at which point Red Bull became Team Verstappen. Thus Ricciardo ran away from the bullpen and ultimately F1 oblivion, thrown a lifeline by the team that gave him a break, as team reserve and roving mascot.
Meanwhile, history shows Verstappen in full destruction mode made easy work of teammates Pierre Gasly and then Alex Albon. Thus faced with no drivers in their pipeline of talent to step up to super Max, Red Bull opted for the experience of Perez. And while he has struggled to match his teammate on just about all fronts, he has slowly but surely improved.
This year, comfortable in the RB19, he has been closer to the #1 car than he has since joining the team in 2021, providing that “hope” for F1 fas that he will be allowed to challenge Verstappen, maybe beat him using smarts (eg. ROS-HAM, 2016) or at least make the reigning F1 World Champion work a lot harder for his third title than he did last year.
Round 3 of the 2023 F1 World Championship, the 37th Australian Grand Prix, takes place this weekend at Albert Park; the 26th F1 GP in Melbourne. Verstappen on max-attack, Perez rebooted. Interesting if it happens…