It’s odd to consider that a four-time Formula 1 world champion replacing a sporadic podium-finishing pay driver could ever be considered anything other than a formality.
Yet here we are a few weeks before Sebastian Vettel replaces Sergio Perez and that move looks more and more like one that could have a few ‘what ifs?’ attached.
As Vettel’s fresh new ‘works’ team Aston Martin prepares to welcome him from Ferrari, he is the man with something to prove.
“Seb has some fairly big shoes to fill now, even if he’s a world champion” :: Ross Brawn
Meanwhile, his predecessor Perez heads for the exit door having run out of ways to show that casting him aside was a very daft thing for Racing Point to do.
“It’ll be a tragedy if he can’t get a car,” F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn said this week, hailing Perez’s shock Sakhir Grand Prix victory – his and Racing Point’s first in F1.
“The team must be thinking about the decisions they have made, losing him when he’s driving so well.
“His replacement Sebastian Vettel I’m sure will come back stronger, as he’s in a bit of a trough at the moment, but Checo is a guaranteed deal. So that’ll be interesting to see how that develops.
“In a way, Seb has some fairly big shoes to fill now, even if he’s a world champion.”
That’s quite an extraordinary take from Brawn, chiefly because it’s true and it’s a hard concept to get one’s head around at first.
But Perez has developed from a ‘tyre manager extraordinaire’ capable of the odd underdog upset into a bona fide leading man in 2020 and a grand prix winner.
Between Racing Point’s current number one and the big-name signing the team’s picked to coldly replace him, Perez is the form driver – and the more reliable pick.
“I saw those comments and I thought ‘big shoes to fill’ for a four-time world champion is hard to imagine versus the guy who just won one race,” Perez said.
“But in a way that’s Formula 1, you know? Titles and victories don’t mean a lot, because it’s so much down to the level of car that you have in your career.
Perez spoke with a smile and the words were mostly polite and cheery but there was some steel in them too
“I think Seb has definitely taken a great decision and is coming to a team of pure racers, to a team that he will definitely have a good time at.
“He will enjoy it. And most importantly, he’ll have some good fun.
“And I have no doubt that the team will be one of the strongest next year so he will definitely have a fantastic car.”
Perez spoke with a smile and the words were mostly polite and cheery but there was some steel in them too.
He hinted that the perception on paper – ultra-successful Vettel vs Perez the journeyman – is a misconception born from F1 success being reliant on car performance. And he put the onus on Vettel to perform immediately in 2021 by declaring Aston’s car will be so good.
Vettel saw the funny side when asked about having big shoes to fill at Racing Point.
“Checo knows the place inside out, it will be difficult to get up to speed straight away” :: Sebastian Vettel
“I would be more worried to take George’s,” he joked in reference to George Russell needing to wear smaller boots to replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes last week.
“George’s shoe size is 45, I learned the other day, so Checo is the same height as me so I’m not worried at all, I think we have the same shoe size!”
But then, “on a serious note”, Vettel went on to dismiss any pressure ahead of his Aston move. Chiefly, it seems, because one of his bigger contributions will be helping the team evolve – and as a world champion that means more than just what he offers on-track.
Whether it’s in developing the car, pointing out shortcomings in the team’s infrastructure or representing the Aston brand, Vettel has a lot to bring to the party.
“There’s plenty of reasons why I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m happy to help and obviously Checo has been with the team for seven years.
“He knows the place inside out, it will be difficult to get up to speed straight away.
“But this is not my first year. So I think I also have a little bit of experience that should help.
“I’m happy to contribute as much as I can to help the team grow. I think that’s the exciting bit.
“I’m seeing it as a chance rather than putting pressure on it from the start.”
But there will be pressure on it. Because while Vettel’s all-round contribution will be vital in the new Aston era, it’s on-track where he will be judged most. And against Perez’s precedent, that’s not guaranteed to end up a favourable comparison.
Racing Point is poised to finish third in the constructors’ championship, Perez fourth in the drivers’ standings. Perez has two podiums this year, so does team-mate Lance Stroll.
Perez has dominated Stroll in qualifying and been vastly superior in races as well. His podium count should probably be double what it is. All of this having missed two races with COVID-19.
“You just have to make the most of your opportunities and the reason I’m in such a peace with myself is because I think I’ve managed to do that” :: Sergio Perez
If Vettel had moved from Ferrari to Racing Point and achieved all this in 2020, it would be considered a job well done. But now it’s already been achieved by a driver many still seem to have serious reservations over.
Perez’s performances are often downplayed as simply the minimum expected of such a fast car. It seems impossible for him to impress because he is forever bound by the perception that he is simply a solid driver with good backing who’s been around a while.
If Perez is not thought to be operating at a high level, then surely a ‘proper driver’ getting into that team and car will achieve even more success?
That will be the expectation in some quarters, but it is unrealistic. Even matching Perez’s achievements will require an excellent season by Vettel.
And what if Vettel falls short? That will inevitably trigger questions over what Perez would’ve done in that car and whether Aston Martin’s made a mistake. It means Vettel’s being set up for what could be a bit of a thankless task, at least externally.
Vettel is evidently a good enough driver to succeed in the Aston era. But he won’t have much of an adjustment period. Stroll provides a quite compliant team-mate so Vettel needn’t fear a poor comparison against the other car – but he has the absolute worst kind of predecessor, someone who is in-form, producing big results, and is widely underrated. Perez has also been on a level Vettel has not been near in his final Ferrari season.
A fresh start and a pink Mercedes might be exactly what Vettel needs to get out of that “trough”, as Brawn calls it. Vettel may not want to put pressure on the move but the circumstances mean that will be taken care of for him.
As for Perez, assuming he does not get a chance elsewhere, hopefully Vettel’s performances facilitate a re-evaluation of his talents.
Perez’s ‘wins and titles don’t really matter’ remark is too far but he is an excellent example of the merits a driver could and should be judged on: progress, ultimate performance level vs ‘potential’ shown early on, all-round contribution to the team and maximising the performance capabilities of the car.
He is also a victim of the misconceptions people get too easily led by: first impressions, financial backing, and a prolonged spell in midfield.
It seems Perez has never quite shed the baggage of his Mexican backers, and has been tarnished by his one season at McLaren not working out – even though it seems to be widely forgotten that 2013 was the start of a serious McLaren decline.
All of that is why his career-best 2020 season, while driving at his peak, has won plaudits within the paddock. Yet sympathy for his situation as he stares at a potential year on the sidelines is not universal.
Perez says he has more he would like to accomplish as he “definitely didn’t come to Formula 1 to win one race only”, but he has also grown to find plenty of satisfaction in his achievements so far.
“Very early on you realise that being a world champion is not fully down to you,” he said. “You have to be in the right car in the right year.
“It’s very hard, only two drivers have the chance each year. But if you don’t have a car with that calibre you just have to make the most of your opportunities and the reason I’m in such a peace with myself is because I think I’ve managed to do that with the level of machinery that I’ve had for my years.
“I definitely made the most out of it. And I had a lot of success in the sport, considering the machinery I’ve had year by year. That’s all you can do.”
And that’s what Perez has done. He has scored a podium in six of his 10 seasons in F1 despite permanently driving midfield cars. In his first year with a properly good car, he’s poised to finish best of the rest.
The fact he has set a record for most starts before a driver’s first win is because of the teams he has driven for rather than perennial underachievement on his part.
Which is why one of the most successful drivers in F1 history truly does have big shoes to fill in replacing him.