The many who questioned McLaren's selection of Sergio Perez have gained in volume and validity over the first two-thirds of the Formula 1 season. While there's more to his 2013 statistics than meets the eye, Perez's current performance level won't be enough to save his ride beyond 2014…especially not if Fernando Alonso can make himself available. Edd Straw reports.
So much for moving up. At this stage of the 2012 Formula 1 season, Sergio Perez had 65 points and three podium finishes – one, a near-win in Malaysia – driving for Sauber. This paved the way for his move to powerhouse McLaren-Mercedes, which seemingly heralded his arrival in the big time.
Pre-season, Perez was not shy in stating he was gunning for the World Championship – and rightly so, given that, on average, McLaren had the quickest car of the previous season. But 13 F1 races into the year, the Mexican has a paltry 22 points, just three more than his Sauber replacement Nico Hulkenberg, and a best finish of sixth place.
Worst of all, McLaren is known to be seriously evaluating whether he's worth persevering with next season. Forget the fact he's on the usual “2+1”-year contract; if McLaren decides he's not delivering, they can oust him.
McLaren's interest in Fernando Alonso is, for all the denials, very real. The chances of landing the Spaniard for 2014 are desperately slim, but in the longer term, Alonso, who is not satisfied with life at Ferrari, is a genuine target.
For all the troubles that the McLaren/Alonso alliance had during 2007, pragmatism on both sides makes the re-establishment of this partnership logical. Honda is pouring vast resources into development of its 1.6-liter V6 turbocharged engine, which will replace Mercedes power at McLaren for 2015. A top driver lineup is demanded, necessitating the signing of one of the few “gold standard��� drivers on the grid. With Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel locked in at Mercedes and Red Bull, respectively, for 2015, that leaves only Alonso, whose deal with Ferrari theoretically holds him until the end of 2016, but can be untied if certain performance clauses are not met by the team. For McLaren, pairing Alonso and Jenson Button ticks all the boxes.
But there is more to Perez's plight than McLaren's interest in Alonso. Replacing him with an all-time great is one thing, but the team is known to even be considering more drastic alternatives such as its junior drivers, Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne, currently first and second in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship. There are other contenders, too, although the natural choice on proven performance in Formula 1, Nico Hulkenberg, is feared to be too tall and heavy for the demands of the 2014 car.
So what has gone wrong for Perez? Certainly he cannot be blamed for McLaren's technical shortcomings. After three seasons being beaten by upstart Red Bull, the decision was made to ditch a car concept that had worked very well in 2012. The result was a machine that, when the team saw the numbers, appeared promising but in the real world only worked in a tiny window. For most of the year, making the top 10 on the grid and picking up a few points constitutes success for the driver of an MP4-29.
Even in that context, though, Perez has not had an outstanding season – although it hasn't been the catastrophe that some have portrayed. Last Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix weekend followed a familiar pattern. Perez's underlying pace was similar to Button's, but in qualifying, Sergio did not get the best out of the car in Q2 and ended up five places behind his teammate on the grid. He finished the first lap just two places behind and the race less than half-a-second down. Against Jenson, a former World Champion, it's far from bad.
But is that good enough for McLaren, which sees Button as an excellent number two (or perhaps a “1.5”) driver? Only twice has Perez finished ahead of JB in the 10 races where they have both taken the checker – the average gap between the pair at the end of the races working out as 10.985 seconds in Button's favor. Given that McLaren is generally running in the bottom half of the top 10, where gaps between positions tend to be tight, that translates to Button having well over twice the points of his teammate (55 compared to 22). So, to give us more context, let's transpose Perez's performance and put him in a Red Bull RB9. Had he finished such a margin behind Vettel in the same 10 races, he'd have five podium finishes to his name, 142 points and would be sitting fifth in the drivers' championship. Hardly brilliant when compared with Vettel's performances, but not terrible.
However, he is not alongside Vettel, who's an increasingly unstoppable force in F1. Perez is paired instead with Button, a classy grand prix driver and a worthy World Champion in 2009, but surely not regarded by many people in pit lane as being a genuine match for 2013-spec Vettel. So while JB can still be very fast, a driver with pretensions of being a future champion should not regularly start behind him and frequently finish behind him.