Feature F1 Unlocked
'I will not give up' – Perez's season has been tough but with huge support in Mexico he's determined to end on a high
A home race is usually an occasion for a driver to wallow in the adulation of his most fervent admirers, enjoying the warm glow of security afforded by being that weekend’s most feted competitor. And there’s no event in F1 where that warm glow is quite as bright or as comforting as it is for Sergio Perez in Mexico City.
From the vast hoardings that line the Viaducto Rio de la Piedad and lead from the airport past the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez towards the centre, to copious amounts of TV ads and to the covers of celebrity gossip magazines on the racks of street corner newsstands, Checo is everywhere.
But while Perez’s eighth visit to his home Grand Prix should be a career-affirming highpoint of his season, this year it comes with a worrying subtext – that it could be his last or at least his last for his current team.
Over the course of the 2023 campaign Checo’s fortunes have slid from the peak value of being an early-season title contender, with two wins and a points total that after four races might have given team-mate Max Verstappen pause for thought, to a market low of being the subject of replacement or even retirement rumours.
But, Checo has been here before. In 2013, a troubled big-time switch from Sauber to McLaren collapsed inside a year as results dried up and his reputation took a battering. A switch to Force India saw him rebuild, but the team imploded and when it was reborn, with the Mexican driver at the heart of the rescue, he found himself surplus to requirements, and a couple of races away from the F1 exit door.
Victory in the penultimate race of 2020 earned him a dream transfer to title-contending Red Bull and a supposedly rosy future.
But the road since has been just as tough. Being paired with Verstappen means his seat is both the most envied and feared in the sport. On one side lies the strong potential to claim race victories but on the other is a merciless comparison with a generational talent.
Perez, though, is as stoic as ever. In Singapore, he reached a landmark only 10 other drivers have hit – 250 Grand Prix starts – and his ability to grind his way to that total, he says, is an achievement in itself.
"It's crazy to look back at my career," he says. "It goes so fast, but when I look back at it, the amount of changes there have been in my career, and in my life, because at the end of the day I still do the same job as I've been doing for the last 20 years. So, that on its own, it's a massive achievement.
"It was really difficult for me to reach Formula 1, so to maintain that, to keep myself here, it’s been quite hard to make that happen. It’s so hard to stay in this sport, to deliver, because every single year Formula 1 takes 100% out of you. So to be able to deliver, to keep people interested in you, to keep evolving as a driver – because new generations are coming in and they are more prepared – it's something quite unique."
And more than 250 races since his debut he can still recall his feelings as he lined up on the grid for the first time in Australia.
“I remember feeling that I’d made it, but also that the really difficult part was about to start – which is about maintaining that position, growing as a driver and so on,” he says.
“There was excitement, but also fear of failure. I really thought that I’d worked so hard for it, and my family had given everything, but that if I didn’t succeed in the first five races, I might be gone by race number six. It can happen fairly quickly that you are out of the sport.”
This weekend in Mexico City he is set to make start number 254. Asked to pick the highlights from those races he once again goes back to the beginning.
“Definitely my debut, because of the journey that I had to get to Formula 1 – leaving Mexico at a very young age, leaving so many things behind – so to finally make it there was a massive achievement. So my debut was very special for me and my family and so on.
“And I think the other major one would be my win in Monaco,” he says. “That was very special for me. It was always a dream to do that in Monaco, plus it was quite intense all the way through.”
The high of that race, and of his bright start to 2023, has undoubtedly given way to much harder times but again Checo refused to buckle.
“I didn’t give up and kept working hard with the engineers to sort things out,” he told Dutch newspaper De Limburger. "My self-confidence came back when I realised that I won races under my own steam earlier this year.”
Perez even went as far as hiring a mental coach to help, at races and at home. “When you are having such a hard time with your work, it is difficult to be cheerful at home with your wife and children,” he says. “So I hired a mental coach because my family deserves to have that cheerful father at home. Together with my coach, I worked on becoming the best version of myself at home, but also as a driver.”
The renewed confidence has allowed him to nudge closer to the runner-up position in the championship, a placing that was taken from him last year, at the final race, by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. He’s unsure, though, whether stepping up to second in the F1 drivers' championship will feel like any kind of progress.
“I really don’t know,” he says. “I’ll tell you once I get this second place trophy, but I don't think it will make any difference.
“If there is a difference, it will be in how I achieve that. I want to achieve it with more victories this year, by finishing the season strong, and having great momentum to go into the winter – still believing that I can be champion in the future, which is the ultimate target.”
In the meantime there are rumours to quash and a gap to Verstappen that needs to be reduced.
“Yeah, we cannot have this sort of gap,” he acknowledged last week in Austin. “Go back to the first six races or so when we were fighting with Max, and I think that’s a target, to get back to that level of comfort with the car.
“It is difficult, of course. It's not ideal when you go through a difficult patch in your career,” he concluded. “But I just love the challenge of getting back at it.
“The easiest thing would be to just walk out of it, but that's not me, that's not who I am, and I will not give up. I have zero doubts that I will be back to my best level, and that is my only target I have in mind.”
And there’s nowhere better to “get back at it” than in front of an adoring home crowd in the cauldron of the Foro Sol where the only thing louder than the RB19 will be the chants of “Checo, Checo!”