Being Max Verstappen’s teammate is a double-edged sword. With the great Red Bull team a driver gets the best car and team service one could wish for in Formula 1, but the Dutchman tends to destroy careers.
While it’s harsh to suggest Max has grenade-ed Perez’s career but because of him, inadvertently or not, the Mexican veteran is under huge pressure. Fighting to remain in his seat if not for the remainder of the season, for sure to keep his ride with RBR beyond 2023 and more so after 2024, when his contract is said to end.
But contracts mean little in the impatient world of F1, especially with low-tolerance Red Bull. Ask Nyck de Vries and a long line of almost forgotten F1 drivers rendered surplus to requirements in the Bull-pen.
In retrospect, Verstappen bossed his way into the team from the minute he made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso, at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, as a 17-year-old. He then proceeded to rip up the F1 record books nearly a decade on he continues to do so. Now at 25, he is a triple F1 World Champion. This Sunday, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, he is the favourite to claim his 44th victory in the top flight.
Along the way, as the Dutchman carved his way to head honcho at RBR, there is a trail of defeated or destroyed drivers. Paradoxically, unlike all other sports, to win in F1 you have to beat your teammate. Enemy number one so to speak. Destroying him is the first prize and their prime objective every time they slip into the car.
Among Max ‘victims’ is Carlos Sainz, a couple of years Verstappen’s senior, who did not get the nod for the Red Bull promotion when underperforming Daniil Kvyat was dropped to Toro Rosso. Carlos and Max were teammates for 23 races, Marko made the call and the right one, as history shows.
Verstappen’s raw pace was always a concern for his teammates
Helmut Marko and Christian Horner promoted Max to the A-team alongside Daniel Ricciardo four races into the 2016 season. The Australian outshone four-time F1 World Champ Vettel comprehensively in 2014. The Aussie was the ‘chosen one’ of the time having made Kvyat look bad. F1 stats show, Verstappen famously won on his debut for RBR in Barcelona that Sunday.
Ironically, thereafter Verstappen ‘copied’ Ricciardo’s takeover of the Red Bull number one mantle, from Vettel, and did the same to Dan. Thus after 58 races sharing a garage with Max, the big smiling Aussie, rather than taking on the soon-to-be best driver in F1, was off to Renault, chasing the big bucks. And that tale of woe is well told…
After that, Red Bull struggled to find a teammate, let alone a wingman for Verstappen. Pierre Gasly lasted 12 sad races, and Alex Albon was dispatched after 26 races in the most coveted seat on the grid.
The best of them all without doubt has been Perez. Now 55 races in as teammate to Max, has ticked more boxes than all his predecessors together, by a wide margin. And has, like few have ever done, beaten the #1 driver fair and square. One can argue that the Checo of Jeddah and Baku was the best we ever saw.
But stats show that was not enough. Verstappen, clearly smarting from being beaten by his older teammate, found another gear, raised the bar and has not been beaten in six races. Perez on the other hand has lost his mojo. Failure to make it into Q3 in the last five races has shone a spotlight on his performances.
Then yesterday, beyond belief was his rookie mistake which saw him smash the unbeatable Red Bull RB19 sorely crunched. Perez was fine but that ego must’ve taken a beating as he faced Marko et al in the pit garage.
Which really goes to the point of the headline of this piece. Verstappen’s teammate is not easy, to say the least, and Perez is best placed to analyse what makes this so perilous for drivers.
Perez: It is key to understand why each thing has happened
“It is key to understand why each thing has happened and learn to deal with it. It is part of the career of an athlete. With my psychologist, we maintain a constant conversation. It’s part of being at the top of the sport, in the best team and not winning every race. But I am second in the World Cup and there is a long season ahead. I’m quiet.”
Notably and worth a mention, apart from the two drivers they have won titles with, Sebastian Vettel and now Verstappen, they can also be classed as notorious ‘serial killers’ of F1 careers. Ask Scott Speed, Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Christian Klien etc. And not mentioning those that nearly made it but then never got a chance aka Antonio Felix de Casta.
But then, there are many drivers in the Red Bull pipeline over the years seeking just two seats in a championship winning team. If among a dozen stones, there are two diamonds, no surprise which ones get the shining treatment and which ones get tossed out of the F1 journey.
Verstappen is the ‘poisoned chalice’ that the number two seat at Red Bull comes with
Perez is more than aware of the pressure he faces amid his poor from: “I’ve been in F1 for 13 years. I’ve seen it all already. That helps you to be calm in this sense and to remember that we are here to enjoy ourselves. It is our dream and the important thing is, despite everything, to enjoy it.”
The poisoned chalice that the number two seat at Red Bull comes with is not unnoticed by his rivals. Nico Hulkenberg said as much in a recent interview, to which Perez replied: “He is a smart driver, who knows the story. I think drivers understand each other much more because we know what it’s like to be here, in this car, in this team.”
So much so Perez reiterated what he said last year: “I reaffirm. 90% of the drivers would sink next to Verstappen. If you are not mentally strong you cannot be at Red Bull. Here you should not underestimate the level of pressure you are under.
“Red Bull is a team where if you have a bad session you already have five drivers in your sights. It is constant pressure from the press. In these three years, I have never seen this in any other team before. With Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes, or whatever team you name, all their drivers have had difficult moments. But nothing happens.
“It’s not like at Red Bull, where you have a bad time and you have to leave the team. I’m not saying all, but few drivers on the current grid could beat Verstappen with the same car. People sitting on sofas watching the race underestimate how sensitive drivers are to settings.”
Perez: I don’t think about 2025
The 33-year-old Mexican continued: “There are cars that make it easier for you, there are moments in the season when you are more comfortable with the car and it starts to get out of hand, you have to compensate a lot for handling and it doesn’t come so naturally to you.
“And in the end, you start to see very small differences that become very big. I am calm because I am giving the best of me. But, without a doubt, he judges himself very differently from the Red Bull drivers. Public opinion will always be there and it is normal. I focus on mine.”
The old racing “his car is better than my car” excuse that Perez’s die-hard fans cry as they search for answers to their man’s plight, is not cause for concern as the driver himself explains why this is not the case: “The cars are the same. The team’s interest is to have both cars up there every race. It’s crazy what is being said outside. There is a lot of speculation. The team is fully focused to give me the opportunity to perform at my best.”
Perez has a wise and experienced head, and lais out his quest to return to race-winning form: Now I only think at this moment, about returning to the level that I had at the beginning of the season. Many people forget and think that I am second in the championship because they give away the points in the store.
“No? If I’m still second in the World Championship after the bad run I’ve had, it’s because of my good start to the year. But anyway, my only objective now is to return to that level and I don’t think beyond that. I don’t think about 2025,” insisted Perez.