Sergio Perez could be forgiven for having mixed feelings as he heads to Monaco for this weekend's Grand Prix. After all, the Mexican, now with five races for McLaren under his belt after his move from Sauber, has experienced it all at Monaco.
He knows what its like to win there, triumphing in GP2 in 2010. He knows what it's like to hit the barriers at the chicane in an impact peaking at 80G and end up in hospital after his crash in 2011. And he knows what it's like for a mechanical failure in qualifying to put him in the wall and rob him of what Perez believes was a shot at victory, condemning him to an anonymous 11th place last year.
He has another reason for being in two minds. For while Perez is a very accomplished driver at Monaco, something that his prodigious, if unfulfilled, pace there over the past two years shows, the McLaren MP4-28 is a car ill-suited to the tight confines of the iconic track on the Cote d'Azur. That doesn't just mean that the McLaren will be its usual uncompetitive self. It could be even worse as the car doesn't get on with bumps or slow corners at all, making it incompatible with the twists and turns of Monte Carlo.
But while Perez knows this, there is part of him, probably the bigger one, that knows there is a chance to overachieve. He's not going to be a contender for the podium by any stretch of the imagination, but there is every chance he can build on the good work he has done during the preceding races in Bahrain and Spain.
“I always believe that in Monaco, the driver can make a difference,” says Perez. “On a good day, I can have a great qualifying session. The most important thing will be to maximize qualifying on Saturday. But with the issues that we have, I expect we are going to suffer quite a bit there. Hopefully we will have some good updates that will help us.”
A quick fix for the MP4-28's problems seems unlikely. The major upgrade package introduced for the Spanish Grand Prix was a step forward, but not a big enough one to convince anyone that it's on a short-term path back to the top. Not only are Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes considerably faster, but Force India still appears to be ahead and Scuderia Toro Rosso showed flashes of the kind of speed needed to beat McLaren in Spain.
Fortunately, Perez is a strong enough character not to be defeated before he gets in the car. He showed that last year, when he returned to the scene of his big accident without any signs of nerves.
“Not at all,” he says when asked if he was intimidated by his Monaco return. “Last year, I was quick straight away. Without the problem I had last year, I believe that I could fight for the win because we were very strong there. And the track itself does not scare me at all.”
That strength of character has certainly helped Perez (even though he is stretching a point by suggesting victory was on the cards in Monaco last year). The start to his McLaren career was underwhelming and not just because the car was only good enough to scrap for minor points. A solid, if unspectacular, ninth place in the Malaysian Grand Prix after having to ditch a planned two-stop strategy got him off the mark but in the next race in China, everything that could go wrong did. Embarrassingly, he crashed in the pit entry after the checkered flag in Friday morning practice in Shanghai. That wasn't the only error of the weekend nor was he particularly quick, leading to McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh stating that more was expected and that Perez should get his elbows out a little more in battle. At that point, people were lining up to write off Perez.
Then came Bahrain.
There, Perez did exactly what Whitmarsh had asked. Granted, he did take things a little too literally and overstep the mark in his battle with Button, hitting the rear of his teammate's car, but he had rattled the 2009 World Champion's cage. Ultimately, Button had to make an extra pit stop and slipped to ninth while Perez finished a fine sixth. While the Mexican had been a little too robust, given his start to the season it was essential that he showed some steel.
“Yes, definitely,” he says when asked if Bahrain was important for him. “My team knows what I'm capable of, they never lost confidence in me and that's something I really appreciate. When you have a bad race, like I had in China, you want to come back and do really well. Everything worked very well for us. We managed to raise our hand and show everyone that we are there. I hope that we can have more races like that.”
As for the relationship with Button, while inevitably there are consequences to what happened in Bahrain, there is little doubt McLaren's lead driver learned to take Perez a little more seriously. And the junior partner showed he'd learned, too, when he didn't give Button too hard a time in the Spanish Grand Prix when running behind him in the final part of the race.
“What we saw in Bahrain between Jenson and myself definitely cost us time,” says Perez. “It cost us parts from my car, too! I damaged a bit my front wing. I am sure that if we are in that situation again in the future, we will fight because we are in a team that allows you to fight your teammate but we will lose less time between us. I expect that.
“I want to be number one and I want to be number one driver at the end of the championship. I have a good teammate to work with and we are working well. We want to beat each other every single race. That's pretty normal, no?”
Although Perez is a long way off usurping Button as McLaren's go-to guy, there are some promising signs. He is very at home with the Woking, UK-based squad and hasn't had too much problem adapting to his new environment. That said, he does have to be reminded on a regular basis to put on his Vodafone cap whenever there is a TV camera or photographer nearby, something Button knows to do almost by reflex. Despite the oft-projected image of McLaren as a cold, gray, unwelcoming team, Perez has found the reality to be very different. Even though he has scored fewer points (12 compared to 22) than he did for Sauber at the same point of last season, he has no regrets about his move. After all, he can be confident that, in the long-term, McLaren will provide him with a car capable of race wins.
“Everybody in the paddock has a very different image of McLaren,” says Perez. “‘They try to make the driver into a robot!' – that's what I heard when I signed. But when I came here it was nothing like that. The team really takes care of you on the human side and supports you a lot, which is important. In the past, I never had that. Of course, they also make you change professionally. I am a better driver than I was a couple of months ago and they have made me a better driver. Also, they make me a more balanced person. I am very happy here – I just want a quicker car.”
The point about being a better driver is an interesting one. Perez switched to McLaren as a racer with significant promise, but without the impressive track record of, say, Nico Hulkenberg. The raw material was promising as Perez was a driver who came close to winning the Malaysian Grand Prix last year and claimed three podium finishes for a midfield team. But he was, and is, is still some way off the finished article.
There are signs of improvement. On the technical side, the team has struggled a little to get Perez up to speed and found it has taken him a while to get something approaching the depth of understanding expected of a McLaren driver. But for his part, Perez has quickly realized the demands of being a driver in a top team in terms of work ethic. In a leading outfit, a few eye-catching performances when everything comes together is not enough. It's about nailing it week in, week out.
“On the technical side, I have improved a lot,” he says. “When you are at the highest level, you look at so many details, so that makes you improve a lot. These days, it's so important to manage the tires and the car setup. This helps you to be so much better at the detail work.”
It could still go either way for Perez at McLaren. His start so far has been a mixed bag and even though the trend of the last two races is a positive one, there is plenty of work for him to do to prove he is worthy of a top-line seat. The mission is complicated by the fact that McLaren has created a car that doesn't look like leaving the midfield behind anytime soon.
For his part, all he can do is keep picking up the points finishes, grab the odd fifth or sixth place when it's on offer and build on outqualifying Button in the Spanish Grand Prix. If he can do this, he has a strong chance of still being there when the much-vaunted McLaren-Honda alliance starts anew in 2015.
The same applies to the highly anticipated but not confirmed return of grand prix racing to Mexico in the near future. The country hasn't hosted an F1 race since 1992, but with Perez now joined on the grid by compatriot Esteban Gutierrez, it means there are two Mexicans in F1 seats for the first time since Moises Solana turned up for his home race in 1968 and shared the sixth row of the grid with full-timer and genuine ace Pedro Rodriguez. Perez relishes the possibility of a Mexican Grand Prix and has few doubts it will happen. Consequently, he'll be determined to justify his place at McLaren this year to ensure that he's in a competitive car when a race on home soil comes round.
“It will be amazing to get a race in Mexico and I hope it happens soon,” he says. “It will be very nice for me and for my country. I am sure that it will happen; It's just a matter of time.”
Perez could make the same comment about his breakthrough in F1. So far, he has shown enough to justify his place on the grid but, through little fault of his own, he's yet to prove himself to be the regular victory challenger that McLaren needs. However, out-racing, then outqualifying Button was a step in the right direction. What matters now is that he kicks on and delivers consistently, starting with Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix. From here on out, it's all about momentum.