Put on the spot, if you had to pick a part of Sergio Perez’s grand prix weekends to improve in the second half of the Formula 1 season, you’d probably pick the Saturdays, right?
Maybe Sundays, if you take the view that Perez has never been a stunning qualifier and it’s actually his race performances that have become surprisingly erratic.
“I have to build up that knowledge with the car to be able to extract more out of it on Fridays,” Perez tells The Race.
“I need better Fridays.”
“When I was at Racing Point I remember FP1 it was just so normal, to get to 100%.” :: Sergio Perez
This is where Perez feels his big opportunity with Red Bull is being stymied, what the plateau that struck prior to the summer break is being pinned on: starting the entire event playing catch up instead of being on the front foot.
“Obviously, the highs have been really high, the win in Baku, some good races and some good qualifying,” he says.
“What I’m lacking right now is that consistency in terms of being able to leave the garage in FP1 and be confident with the car to know what to expect.
“It takes me quite a bit to build it up through the weekend.
“When I was at Racing Point I remember FP1 it was just so normal, to get to 100%.
“It is something that takes time naturally. I’m not on my own, some drivers have adapted better than others but you see that especially this year it is very tricky to adapt to new cars.”
The pitfalls of this disadvantage are obvious. In a modern grand prix weekend a driver has maybe half a dozen proper qualifying simulations before the main event.
There will be more, obviously, but in terms of getting the best out of the tyre – this is the Pirelli era after all – then Perez reckons you get “probably two laps in FP1, two laps in FP2 and then two laps in FP3”.
So if it takes multiple laps on a tyre to get a feel and improve, by that time “your tyre is old, then you go into different scenarios, which are irrelevant”. Perez is in that phase. Team-mate Max Verstappen is not.
“We cannot take away from Max, he’s really at one with the car and he’s obviously the fastest current F1 driver on the grid – the most at one with the car, hardly makes any mistakes,” acknowledges Perez.
“I have a pretty strong benchmark in that regard with him.”
The result is Perez was the driver underperforming the most relative to his machinery before F1 hit the pause button. Which was odd – not in the sense that Perez wasn’t magically cracking his new team and car, but because it looked like he was starting to and then suddenly he took a step back.
True, he inherited his win in Azerbaijan, but he was second on the road in that race on merit after his best weekend of the season. In France, he qualified well enough – still too slow relative to Max Verstappen but well enough to be in the picture – and then ran a solid first stint that he ‘Perez-ed’ into a good strategy that helped him pinch third from Valtteri Bottas late on.
Two podiums in a row created a welcome bit of momentum that ground to a halt pretty much instantly with a pair of underwhelming results in Austria, a miserable British Grand Prix where he spun out of the sprint race and started at the back, then Hungary where he qualified OK in terms of position (fourth) but not in terms of pace (six tenths behind Verstappen) and got wiped out at Turn 1 by Bottas.
Perez is obviously much more familiar with his team and his car than at the start of the year. But other than that, there’s not much that’s obvious to distinguish performance-wise between Perez with no Red Bull experience and Perez with 11 grands prix weekends under his belt.
And remember, he thought it would take less than half that to get up to speed.
“I obviously arrived into a team that is able to challenge for the world championship straight away, so I didn’t have that build up into it,” he says.
“But I’m fine, I’m happy with my improvements. And I think the results are probably worse than the speed.
“It’s just a matter of time and I will keep improving. I will only grow with the team from now on. I’m very competitive, and I want to do the best for myself, but I also have to be realistic and take the positives, because there are some good positives.
“It’s not been so easy this season with the lack of testing, but I still have to take a lot of positives.”
Despite his underachievement so far, you’ve probably noticed Perez’s pre-summer message was one of calm. But it’s not just a case of ‘driver says bad thing isn’t bad’ because chances are he’ll keep his drive for 2022 unless it gets really bad from this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix onwards.
Perez has faced a unique situation, joining a new team with a completely different concept of car with barely any testing in pre-season. Going up against a hurricane team-mate in Verstappen also gives him nowhere to hide.
“There are obviously some things that he’s very comfortable with that he has been used to for the last I don’t know how many years,” Perez says.
“But it’s just naturally easier. Everything is in the back of his mind so for me it’s all consciously having to chip away, think on some things.”
Verstappen’s ‘at oneness’ is why Perez opted not to start fiddling with the Red Bull early on. He thinks the RB16B can eventually suit him – but Perez’s attitude from the beginning has been very much focused on adapting himself to the car first. That, though, is not coming too easily.
“The way I found was the fastest way I can get up to speed,” he says of following Verstappen’s set-up.
“Because changing suspension, changing geometry, changing a steering rack or whatever – it only takes track time away from you and given how limited the track time is this year it’s so important just to get on with it, adapt to it.
“I just thought that was the best way to approach it.”
Red Bull seems naturally inclined to afford Perez a bit more patience given the limited testing and the perceived lack of alternatives (we’ll gloss over Pierre Gasly’s enduring invisibility).
His case is probably being helped by the likes of Daniel Ricciardo also struggling to adapt to their new teams and cars this season – remember, Perez is the third Red Bull attempt at replacing Ricciardo since 2019.
Of Ricciardo specifically, who is having such a pronounced struggle to re-wire himself to drive a very different McLaren, Perez says: “We are in a very similar boat in terms of how different our cars and our power units are to what we’ve been used to.
“Having a different power unit is also a different driving style and different techniques, in the race as well. We had to adapt to probably the biggest difference out there.”
Adaptation has been a buzzword among the likes of Perez, Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz (Ferrari), Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) and Fernando Alonso (Alpine). To say what it actually means is difficult in broad terms because it is different with each driver and scenario.
What seems to be coming is all of them have lacked a tenth or two (at least) in ultimate performance. With modern F1 cars being so specific and finicky, that’s way easier to identify than it is to address.
“It’s so difficult to adapt to things because you don’t have the time,” stresses Perez.
“And also you are looking for millimetres of things that will make a huge difference in your performance.
“We’re talking about tenths of a second here, and there are just one or two things that you have to fix and all of a sudden, you get the lap time.”
Can Perez find those one or two things? Does he know what they are and more importantly can he apply them? There have been flashes at times this season but it often seems almost by luck rather than judgement.
“The lap time is coming very differently,” he says of the Red Bull versus his Racing Point from 2020 in which Perez was one of the stars of the season.
“Sometimes you try in the back of your mind to do something different, to get the laptime out of the car the way you used to get it, and you look at the laptime and it’s one second off.
“It’s when you realise that you have to do things very differently.”
We’ve gained few specific answers in our conversation with Perez about what it is he must do differently. Most likely because he’s in an awkward halfway house, a little like Ricciardo, in that he can see the limitations but can’t quite work out how to resolve them.
The first half of 2021 had just enough to keep Perez positive. Unsurprisingly the highlights are mainly found on Sundays: “I’m already very, very close to Max in race pace at times out there.”
But even that answer quickly returns to a familiar theme: “It’s just that consistency, and building it quicker in the weekend. That will be the main thing.”