Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Following Sergio Perez’ impressive 2021 campaign with RedBull, as well as his impeccable midfield tenureship with Racing Point, there can be no doubt of the Mexican’s immense talent. However, there was a point in time not that long ago in which the lovable driver’s Formula One career seemed in tatters after a turbulent 2013 season. Here is the story of the McLaren superstar that never was.
Written by Aiden Hover, Edited by Morgan Holiday
The year was 2012, the London Olympics had delighted the summer, Disney had just bought Lucas Films and with it the Star Wars franchise, and a pop song by Korean artist PSY was dominating the radios. In the world of Formula One, however, fans were left stunned as Lewis Hamilton had decided to end his 14-year relationship with McLaren as part of a surprising move to Mercedes for the 2013 season, replacing Michael Schumacher. Despite building possibly the fastest car, McLaren had denied its two drivers the opportunity to fight for the 2012 championship due to embarrassingly poor reliability which led to retirements from ten out of the 20 races held that year between the two cars. Hamilton reportedly made the decision to switch to Mercedes upon frustratingly retiring once again from the lead of the Singapore Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, Sergio Perez had enjoyed a standout second season with Sauber in which he finished tenth in the standings with an impressive three podiums and a number of great drives, cementing himself as a rising talent within the sport. A product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, Perez had been extensively rumoured to replace Felipe Massa alongside Fernando Alonso – at least until Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo snarked at the Mexican’s lack of experience. Fortunately for Perez, Hamilton’s departure had opened up a different space at the front of the field alongside Jenson Button and so, on September 28th, McLaren announced that Perez would join the team on a multi-year deal, ending his partnership with Ferrari. Martin Whitmarsh cited Sergio’s ‘string of giant-killing performances’ for his decision. This was it then. Formula One’s most exciting up and coming driver would finally have his chance at the front of the grid!
Fast forward to pre-season testing for the 2013 season and it became apparent that this year’s McLaren wasn’t as good as it was in 2012, with the two Ferrari and Mercedes drivers topping the timing sheets ahead of both McLaren drivers, with the RedBull pair expected to be up there too by the time racing was to resume. Despite this setback, Perez was still excited for the newest chapter in his racing career. Upon the season opener in Melbourne, however, things did not begin smoothly. Whereas McLaren had locked out the front row only a year prior, Perez qualified a measly 15th for his first race with McLaren. A shock no doubt for the storied team so used to winning, not at all helped on Sunday as Perez failed to recover, finishing outside of the points. He would describe the race as ‘difficult’ and set out his desire to improve as quickly as he could, wary of the intense corporate environment and expectations that come within a big team like McLaren. The following round in Malaysia saw Perez score his first points with the team, finishing ninth. Still not where he would want to be, but at least he was improving.
Following another pointless result in China, Perez appeared to finally click with his car as he achieved an impressive sixth place in Bahrain, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. This success, however, wasn’t all that it appeared to be as Perez’ driving style was publicly slandered by his more experienced teammate, Jenson Button. In the wake of a fierce duel between the duo, Button would remark to the world’s media, ‘I’ve had some tough fights in F1, but not quite as dirty as that. That’s something you do in karting and normally you grow out of it but that’s obviously not the case with Checo.’ Damming words that clearly were not taken in by Perez, as his overly aggressive driving style was once again critiqued after the Monaco Grand Prix in which he performed a number of exciting overtaking manoeuvres before later colliding with Kimi Räikkönen. The Finn would later say how Perez should be ‘Punched in the face’ for the way he drives. Having now upset two of the most respected drivers on the grid, Checo’s 2013 season had gotten off to a disappointing start with no improvement in sight including another four underwhelming performances as F1 headed into the summer break. This left Perez with an unpleasant tally of only 18 points to his teammate’s 39.
By now it was clear that the McLaren MP4-28 was lacking performance across the board compared to their competitors – and with a large regulation overhaul on the books for 2014, there would be little investment put into improving the car. However, a lacklustre car cannot be the sole reason for Perez’ apparent poor performances, especially compared to his teammate Button who had consistently outperformed both the car and Perez in the first half of the season. Following the summer break, however, Perez appeared to calm his driving style allowing him to slowly work on his race pace as the season continued.
With strong points finishes in Singapore and South Korea, Checo was finally capitalising on his evident pace, later leading to his season-best finish of fifth in India in which he was only four seconds away from the podium. He would follow this impressive race with a string of consecutive top-ten finishes rounding out the season. Sergio Perez had appeared to get his mojo back behind the wheel despite the lack of pace within the car. He rounded out the season with 49 points and an impressive head-to-head qualifying record of 10-9 against Jenson Button with Button narrowly coming out on top, demonstrating an impressive recovery throughout the season. This is why it came as such a shock to much of the Paddock as McLaren announced that Perez would be dropped from the team to make way for Kevin Magnussen for 2014. Perez himself was just as shocked, feeling as though he had done enough to warrant another season in the car – particularly as he was initially signed on a multi-year deal.
With McLaren coming out of their worst season in nearly 30 years, it appeared to many as if Perez was being used as a scapegoat for the team’s failures, instead of simply admitting to creating a poor car and mismanaging the work environment. McLaren would fall to the wayside again in 2014 before truly dropping off in 2015, highlighting issues within the team far greater than simply their second driver. For Perez however, he would sign with Force India for 2014 and begin to build the Silverstone team around himself. He would score a number of podiums and even a shock win throughout the next six seasons with the team as he sought to fix the damaged reputation he gathered from his time at McLaren, and grow into the McLaren superstar that finally was.