Underneath the Monza podium last year you’d have got long odds on then Ferrari and McLaren target Sergio Pérez lining up for Force India in 2014. Yet such is the evolution of Formula 1 that Pérez finds himself attempting to resurrect his career with a midfield outfit, despite 2014 set to be only his fourth season, and he is still just 23 years of age.
In September 2012 Pérez finished on the podium in Italy, tested for Ferrari at Fiorano and then signed for McLaren at the end of the month. The consensus was that McLaren had rushed into signing the Mexican after being wrong-footed by Lewis Hamilton’s decision to jump ship to Mercedes. Some suspected that McLaren eyed a lucrative market due to Pérez’s nationality while Ferrari pointed towards some lap times at Fiorano and suspected that Pérez was not ready for a top seat – with several privately believing Jules Bianchi as the hotter prospect.
Even so, few could have predicted that McLaren would produce such an abysmal car to the extent where Pérez finished 2013 in 11th place in the championship with 49 points, 17 fewer and one position lower than in 2012, when he raced for Sauber.
McLaren believe Kevin Magnussen to be a brighter prospect than Pérez – with attitude and technical feedback a supposed hindrance to the Mexican – and subjected him to the rigorous analysis prior to his signing, something which they were unable to do with Pérez.
Yet Pérez was not an appalling driver in 2013 and his struggles were merely symptomatic of McLaren’s woes. For much of the year, the MP4-28 was a machine that was over a second off the pace – at Silverstone it looked dreadful under braking, with a desire to go any way but forwards. While Pérez must shoulder some blame for a few performances, McLaren must take some flak for not nurturing their driver to the extent that was obviously required.
To write off 2013 as a complete failure for Pérez would be foolish. He lost out to team-mate Jenson Button on points 73-49, although it would be unfair not to point out that Button has participated in almost 200 more races than Pérez. The Mexican began the season messily as he struggled to find a balance between overly passive (Malaysia) and aggressive (Monaco). In between there was the infamous ‘pull your elbows out’ comment from Martin Whitmarsh, which Pérez duly did in Bahrain, much to Button’s chagrin. Once Pérez settled down after the summer break, there was a more even split, with Button only just edging out Pérez by 34-31. In qualifying, Pérez held the upper hand 10-9 across the course of the season, albeit with the caveat that McLaren acknowledge qualifying as a weak point of Button’s game. The bottom line is that McLaren did not view Pérez as a potential future world champion and in came Magnussen.
Pérez’s response to his sacking by McLaren will define his future in the sport. It’s too simplistic to say that he has been relegated a tier (after all, McLaren and Force India battled in the midfield for much of the season), but racing for the Silverstone based team in 2014 should fire Pérez up to prove to McLaren that they weren’t wrong to hire him and were wrong to sack him, rather than the other way around.
Pitching Pérez against Nico Hülkenberg is also an enticing prospect for Formula 1 fans: both have been seen as the future stars of the sport (although Pérez’s stock has understandably plummeted) and they have similar levels of experience in the sport. Hülkenberg’s previous stint with Force India and his current high regard means that it is perhaps Pérez who has little to lose. Force India should provide Pérez with the right environment in which to thrive, and, as shown by the treatment to Adrian Sutil and Hülkenberg, owner Vijay Mallya is one to reward loyalty and commitment, especially if he believes in the talent of the driver.
Force India’s decision to abandon development of their 2013 car extremely early in the season – as well as their relationship with Mercedes – means that there is no reason to suggest the team will not continue their upwards trajectory next year.
It isn’t yet the last chance saloon for Pérez, but a lifeline at Force India provides him with the opportunity to revitalise his career.