To the Underdogs - Sergio Pérez
The long journey of F1's newest race winner.
Sergio "Checo" Pérez is one of Formula 1's fan-favorite drivers. After facing uncertainty regarding his future, the 30-year-old Mexican is now set to race with Red Bull in 2021. This new challenge isn't the first he's faced, as his journey towards the pinnacle of motorsport was filled with obstacles and difficult decisions.
Sergio was born on the 26th of January 1990 in Guadalajara, Mexico
A Motorsport Background
Sergio Pérez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, on the 26th of January 1990. From a very young age, he was surrounded by a motorsport-related environment. He was the son of Antonio Pérez, manager of Adrían Fernández, a well known Mexican racing driver. It was while watching F1 races with his father, that a very young Checo would decide he was going to become a Formula 1 driver. With the support of his father, he would make his debut in karts in 1996, racing in the Junior category, where he finished runner-up in the championship.
Pérez started racing go-karts in the mid-90s, where he would accumulate several wins despite constantly being the youngest driver in the races he contested.
After considerable success in the Youth Class (becoming the division's youngest ever champion), in 1999 Perez received a special license to race in the 80cc Shifter class despite not having the minimum age to race. From then on, he would start receiving support from Mexican magnate Carlos Slim. 2003 would be a transcendental year for him, as he would witness first-hand the influences and ugly side of the sport. As he explained on F1's Beyond the Grid podcast, in 2003 he was racing against a competitor. After the race, the opponent's father aggressively insulted the race organizers and threatened the race director into sanctioning Pérez.
From then on, Pérez struggled to race in karting events as the Mexican Karting Commission had him stripped of the license that allowed him to compete. He would be forced to miss the last round of the 125cc category, ultimately losing him the championship and the prize of becoming a member of Carlos Slim's newly established Escudería Telmex. Pérez's disappointment was such that he almost quit racing, however, his performance that year was good enough for Escudería Telmex to still grant him a test of a Skip Barber racing car. Leading him to race in the category during the 2004 season.
Being no longer capable of racing in his country, Pérez started racing in the United States in 2004 in the now-defunct Skip Barber Race Series.
Into the Unknown, Alone
Pérez's season at the Skip Barber didn't have the same amount of success the Mexican had seen in karting, however, he showed good performance and great adaptability to the new machinery. Still, being 14 years old at the time, he was focused on getting to compete in Europe. Because of the time difference, he used to wake up in the middle of the night to call teams that raced in the junior formulae and try to get a deal with them. Eventually finding one in the Formula BMW in Germany. At 14 years of age, he left Mexico and headed to Europe all by himself.
Being alone in a country in which he didn't speak the language was tough for him. He lived in a room at a restaurant his team owner had, and could only call his family once or twice a week. Pérez disputed his first season in the series in 2005 racing for the 4speed Media team. He managed to get a podium in the early races, but hampered by poor reliability (let's remember this was the absolute cheapest deal Pérez could find to race in Europe) he would only manage to finish 14th out of 28 drivers.
His results allowed him to change teams the following year. Racing for Team Rosberg, he would manage two podiums and 6th place in the overall standings.
At 14 years of age and all by himself, Pérez left for Germany to race in the Formula BMW Series
After his performance in Formula BMW and an appearance in the A1GP Series, Pérez raced in the very competitive British Formula 3 in 2007. Racing for the T-Sport team, it was a very successful season, as he won 16 out of 22 races, only missing the podium on 2 occasions, winning the championship by almost a hundred points over 2nd place. He contested the F3 International the following year, where he finished 4th.
Pérez won the British F3 championship in 2007, he finished 4th in the International category in 2008
Pérez then disputed the 2008-2009 season of the GP2 Asia Series with Campos Racing. He won 2 races and finished 7th in the standings. That allowed him to race the main GP2 championship in 2009 with Arden (owned by Christian Horner). He faced poor reliability and bad performances that only allowed him to finish 12th in the standings. Taking a step back, he raced 4 races again in the GP2 Asia Series, this time with the Barwa Addax team, with which he returned full time into the main GP2 class in 2010. Pérez could have won the championship, but mistakes along the season saw him limited to 2nd place. However, in October of that same year, Pérez was announced as a new member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, and that he would be driving in Formula 1 with Sauber in 2011.
Pérez came back from a hard time in GP2 to take second place in the championship, his talent was enough to earn him a full-time F1 seat in 2011.
A Dream Come True
Sergio made his F1 debut at the 2011 Australian GP with the Sauber team. He would finish 7th, a good result, but the fact that he had managed his tires well enough so that he was the only driver to make a single pitstop during the race made it even more significant. However, his success would be undermined as both Sauber cars were disqualified from the race.
He had mixed luck in the overall season. He retired in Malaysia after debris hit his car, had a gearbox issue while he ran 7th in Monza, his suspension failed in Belgium. A sprain on his foot after a heavy crash in Monaco saw him miss that race as well as the following round in Canada. His best finish was 7th place at the British GP. Reliability as well as his overall inexperience saw him finish 16th in the championship. In September that year, as part of his Ferrari ties, he would test a Ferrari F1 car alongside friend Jules Bianchi.
2011 saw Checo make his F1 debut driving for Sauber, partnering Kamui Kobayashi, he would finish 16th in the championship
Checo stayed with Sauber for 2012, and with a much more competitive car, the Mexican was able to show his speed. Pérez chased the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso for the win, with the gap being as small as half a second at one point, but a late error prevented him from catching the Spaniard, ultimately finishing 2nd to take his first podium. Despite missing out on the win, Pérez's performance gained him high praise from critics. He would take a second podium with a 3rd place in Canada after starting 15th. In Monza, he qualified 12th but made his way up the field to finish 2nd, a performance that earned him a bow from Niki Lauda himself during the podium ceremony.
With a better car, Pérez was able to display his speed, being capable of going head to head with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton
Rumors of a Ferrari drive for 2013 were strong at the end of the season. However, as an article posted on the F1's page would explain, in 2013, Mercedes needed a driver to replace retiring Michael Schumacher. Lewis Hamilton was the principal candidate, but had the Briton declined, it could have been Pérez driving for the Silver Arrows. As we all know, Hamilton did leave for Mercedes, which left a vacancy at McLaren, who offered Pérez the drive. From a logical perspective, McLaren was a perfect choice, they had won the last race of 2012, and there was no indication of the downhill the team was going into. With Ferrari taking too long to decide whether or not they would drop Felipe Massa, Pérez signed for the Woking team despite having a pre-contract to possibly drive for Ferrari in 2014.
For 2013 McLaren had developed a car that didn't perform the way anyone would have expected. The MP4/28 was difficult to drive as it was inconsistent in the hands of both their drivers. Neither Pérez nor teammate Jenson Button would score a podium finish during the season, a first for McLaren in over 30 years. They both managed several points finishes, but the good results were balanced with bad performances when the car would finish way out of even the top 10. During the season however, Perez was starting to be subject to critics as some said he was often driving too aggressively, famously angering Kimi Raikkonen in Monaco, and touching with Button in Bahrain.
Pérez's (6) aggressive driving style got him into trouble while he drove an underperforming McLaren in 2013. He would out-qualify his teammate, but ultimately finish behind in the championship.
Despite the evident lack of pace of the McLaren car, Pérez was able to out-qualify Button, but was heavily criticized as he was still behind the Englishman in the championship. Being supposed to have been the replacement of Hamilton as McLaren's "young gun", and yet still not delivering the performances the team expected, rumors of a potential replacement started coming even before the season ended.
With 2 races to go, McLaren announced that "The Mexican Wunderkind", as he was called after his performances in Sauber, would not be driving for them in 2014. The critics seemed to ignore Pérez's performances from the year prior, as they deemed his eventual replacement with Kevin Magnussen "a victory against pay-drivers". Having cut ties with Ferrari by signing for McLaren, and with the British team making the statement very late in the season, Pérez had nowhere to go.
Comeback with Force India
In December of 2013, it was announced that Sergio would partner Nico Hulkenberg at Force India for the 2014 campaign. Having been dropped by McLaren had shaken Pérez's confidence, but despite what was arguably a step back, he was able to demonstrate he hadn't lost his speed. In the 3rd race of the season, Pérez would finish on the podium after defending from a charging Daniel Ricciardo. He would finish the 2014 championship in 10th place.
He started slow in 2015, initially trailing his teammate, however, he would gather more than 60 points in just the second half of the season with 4 top 5 finishes, including a podium at the race in Sochi, allowing him to beat Hulkenberg and finish a career-best 9th overall.
Force India allowed Checo to pick himself up after the difficult year with McLaren, delivering great performances.
2016 would be his best year in Formula 1 until that point. After a rough start to the season with an out of pace car, new upgrades allowed Checo to return to form. At the 6th round in Monaco, Pérez drove a great race in changeable conditions, defending from Sebastian Vettel to take 3rd. 2 rounds later, at the European GP in Baku, Perez qualified a career-best 2nd, but was relegated to starting 7th due to a gearbox replacement. Still, he climbed up the order to finish 3rd. He would finish 7th in the drivers championship. "The best of the rest" Pérez was at the top of his game and driving better than ever before.
In 2016, Pérez was able to display how much he had developed as a driver, taking 2 podiums and finishing 7th in the standings.
After the success of 2016, Pérez declined an offer to race for Renault in 2017, staying in Force India to receive Esteban Ocon as his new teammate. Ocon was an injection of new blood to the team, which expected to improve their results. However, the two drivers would clash several times during the season. In Baku, Ocon went into Pérez, pushing the Mexican into the wall and damaging his car. In Belgium, Pérez defended aggressively from Ocon, ending in contact and damaging their cars. Pérez would score no podiums but still managed to finish 7th in the standings again, beating Ocon by 13 points.
They would continue to clash in 2018, albeit much less than in 2017. In Singapore, Pérez had a very poor race, colliding into Ocon and later Sergei Sirotkin. He was the only driver from a team not in the top 3 to finish on the podium, with a 3rd place in Baku.
Pérez faced increased competitiveness from new teammate Esteban Ocon. The two would clash on a number of occasions.
Administration and Racing Point
Despite the good results from the years prior, halfway through the 2018 season, it became known that Force India was facing financial trouble, with the possibility of it having to close down. Perez took legal action against the team to get it placed into administration. The Mexican faced heavy criticism as it was thought that he was doing it because of delayed salaries. However, it would eventually be known that the move was necessary to prevent the dissolution of the team, which would have led to everyone working there to lose their jobs. The administration saw the team and its assets basically on sale. Eventually, it would be Lawrence Stroll, leading a consortium of investors who would buy the team and rebrand it as Racing Point Force India.
2019 saw the team get rebranded again, this time as Racing Point. Racing with a car that was mostly developed before the administration period, the team wasn't too competitive. Pérez scored no podiums but managed to finish 10th in the championship, ahead of new teammate Lance Stroll. In August of that same year, Perez signed a new contract that would see him in the team until the end of 2022.
Perez's 2019 car wasn't as competitive as other years, he would only finish 10th in the championship with 52 points.
When the season started with the Austrian GP, Pérez drove a very good race and could have finished on the podium after a collision between Hamilton and Albon, but a bad strategy call saw him finish 6th. In the 2nd round, he started P17, and would climb his way up the field into P5, however, he broke his front wing while trying to get P4, ultimately finishing P6. He would then be forced to miss the two rounds in Silverstone, having tested positive for COVID-19. He came back to finish P5 in Spain. A 10th place in Monza was the best he could manage after a red flag ruined the team's strategy. After the race, news would break out that Sebastian Vettel would be replacing Checo in the team, despite the Mexican having a contract. Nevertheless, Pérez's driving had never been better. Despite his car having no upgrades, he out-qualified teammate Stroll in Mugello. Again without upgrades, he finished 4th in Russia, and repeated the feat in Germany, with his car finally receiving the updates. A bad strategy call saw him miss the podium in Imola, but would finish 2nd in Turkey the following race. He seemed to be on route to 3rd place in Bahrain before his engine gave out with a few laps to go.
Then came the 2nd race in Bahrain. Pérez qualified P5, but was punted and spun over in the first lap. It was through pure skill that he made his way back up into P3, and after mistakes in the pitlane by Mercedes, he would go on to lead the last 26 laps, eventually taking victory by over 10 seconds ahead of 2nd place. He couldn't finish the last race of the season as he had mechanical issues, however, his performances throughout the year were enough to secure him P4 in the drivers standings, despite missing 2 races due to COVID, and 2 DNFs.
2020 saw Pérez win his first F1 race as his future in the sport remained uncertain.
On the 18th of December, it was announced that Pérez would be driving for Red Bull in 2021. Having become a fan favorite throughout the season, and being an overall respected member of the grid, Pérez's announcement was met with congratulations from the likes of Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso, Mario Andretti, George Russell, Antonio Giovinazzi, and Carlos Sainz.
Having not only saved their jobs, but also delivered them with the best results the team had seen, Pérez became a beloved member of his team, seen here with Michael "Mikey" Brown, his head of mechanics.
In Sakhir, joining Racing Point, Alfa Romeo (Sauber) mechanics prepared their pit wall board to receive Checo, an Alpha Tauri team member also came by to see the scene, as a McLaren photographer takes the picture of a victory for the underdogs.
I certainly hope Checo does well in Red Bull, I often hear people say that he had his shot at a top team while in McLaren, but they seem to forget how bad that car was and the massive slump McLaren was going into. This may be Perez's real chance at a top team, and after having read and listened to the interviews I used to write this article, I think he really does deserve the chance. He and I are from the same city, Guadalajara. Coming from a country with so little involvement in international motorsport, and especially F1, it is great to know there is finally someone taking our flag to the top step of the podium once again.