Few narratives in Formula One this season possess such dramatic potential as that of Sergio Pérez, the driver for whom destiny awaits. He has spent 10 years building to the moment he pushes the loud pedal on the grid at the opening grand prix in Bahrain on Sunday.
This is the greatest chance of his career, a lifetime of hope and ambition distilled into one shot to make his mark at the top of F1.
An undoubted talent seemingly left behind by the big teams, Pérez, now 31, has the opportunity of a lifetime in driving for Red Bull this year. His very future in F1 was in doubt last season but Pérez instead contemplates a chance for redemption that he is determined to seize. “Winning is everything,” he says. “You come into F1 with ambition to become a world champion but very early on I realised you have to be in the right spot at the right time to be able to contend for the title. Hopefully this year I am and I can fight for it.”
Observing whether he can do so will be a gripping affair. He goes up not only against a seven-times world champion in Lewis Hamilton but also his hugely talented Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, around whom the team have revolved for the past three years. Pérez joins this top table for the first time in his career, only after being unceremoniously dropped by Racing Point last season.
This will be his first drive in a car that could challenge at the very front and he is in fine form to do so. Last season he took his first win at the Sakhir GP in Bahrain and this old hand has the rookie’s raw hunger for more.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, is convinced Pérez has the skills to finally make his mark at the top: “Once Sergio won that race in Bahrain he produced a compelling argument that he was the right guy to put in a car alongside Max.
“We saw what he did last year, he got his hands on a competitive car and he made good use of it. His racecraft, his ability to nurture the tyres stand out, real positives and his wealth of experience.”Pérez has earned such praise on a journey that has been anything but straightforward. A decade ago he made his debut for Sauber and a year later was delivering seriously impressive performances such as his second in the wet in Malaysia and a charge to third in Canada. Results that were impressive enough for McLaren to step in and take him on to replace Hamilton when the British driver left for Mercedes in 2013.
It seemed to be a dream move, with McLaren always in the fight for titles, but fate dealt Pérez a bitter blow as he found himself in the right place at the wrong time. Their 2013 car was dismally off the pace and they failed to reach any podiums for the first time since 1980. Then the shellshocked Mexican was dropped at the end of the year through no fault of his own.
It was a painful experience and might have broken a lesser driver, but he emerged with only greater determination. “That’s something I carried through my career, for many years,” he says. “It was easy for top teams to think: ‘Well, McLaren dropped him for a reason.’ It took me many years to prove myself, year after year that I was delivering and since then I have had podiums with cars that were not really able to get the podiums.”
He did so after joining Force India in 2014, the team that became Racing Point, remaining with them until he was let go for 2021 in favour of Sebastian Vettel.
It was a body blow and it seemed inconceivable that a driver of such talent might be out of the sport. Fortunately Red Bull stepped in, but it was no act of altruism. Since Daniel Ricciardo left they have failed to find a partner from their junior programme who could match and support Verstappen.
This year they are bullish that they might finally take the fight to Mercedes. Honda are throwing everything at their final engine for Red Bull and the car was demonstrably quickest in pre-season testing.
“That’s why we brought Sergio in, to bolster the strength of the team,” Horner said. “It would have been easy to stay with the junior driver programme but it demonstrates how hungry this team is for success that for the first time since 2007 we have stepped outside the junior programme to take on a driver of Sergio’s ability.”In equal machinery Pérez is convinced he will be able to mix it with Verstappen. “If I wasn’t that confident I would not be here,” he says of the impending scrap. “I am confident in myself, confident with my capabilities, my strengths, my weaknesses.”
He has a contract for only one year but knows that he holds his fate in his own hands. Pérez has a point to make on a date with destiny he has earned the hard way.
“My story has been about not giving up, pushing and delivering,” he says. “That’s the main thing for me to be able to have a car that can challenge for the championship. To prove to myself that I can do it.”