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.
Qualifying was a weakness for Perez last year and McLaren people were hopeful they could get the best out of him on Saturdays, but their success rate in this area has been patchy. Jenson has outqualified Sergio 8-5 to date. If you eliminate anomalous performances like Perez being whole seconds off Button in Q2 in Australia thanks to a gamble on slicks, there's an average deficit of less than 0.2 second, but again this can only be described as decent, rather than great. This concerns McLaren, especially as there are those who question whether Button is still bringing his A-game, week-in, week-out, now that a) he's no longer up against a teammate of Hamilton's pace, and b) he's driving a poor car.
Then there are the question marks over Perez's ability to see the big picture during races. After a series of mishaps in the final third of the 2012 season, he came into this season with his driving on a more conservative setting (despite his aim at the championship). Then, when told by team principal Martin Whitmarsh that he needed to get more aggressive, following a dire weekend in China, Perez did as bid in Bahrain finished sixth. He squarely outperformed Button there, but getting his elbows out in the direction of his teammate did raise eyebrows, and Alonso was another left unimpressed by Perez's on-track antics.
It was a similar story a month later, in Monaco, where his race was a mix of brilliantly well-judged passing moves and a few reckless ones, too. He eventually retired after contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and even the normally unflappable Finn was moved to remark, “Maybe someone should punch him in the face.”
While Perez has not made any extreme transgressions since, there have been a few further scrapes with Button, while at Spa he was given a penalty for forcing Romain Grosjean off the track. What McLaren is asking itself is whether Perez is destined always to be a driver who fluctuates between overly conservative and overly aggressive, without ever finding the happy middle ground. He's only 23 and in his third season so cannot be expected to be quite as measured as Button, but in younger drivers you tend to seek high points and expect these to increase in number and consistency as experience grows. Perez's high points have been high (again, in the context of his machinery) but not extraordinarily high, and that, more than anything, is what is worrying McLaren.
Sergio himself accepts he needs to do better and the as-yet-unconfirmed change in his management (family friend Adrian Fernandez will no longer be involved) may be a final attempt to build a support structure that allows him to maximize his ability. Perez is acutely aware that his situation is under review, the pressure on him is intense, and this may yet bring out the best in him. If not…well, it's fair to assume McLaren's hopes of drawing sponsorship from Telmex and associated companies is less of a priority now than it was before the Honda deal was done.
If Perez were to find himself ousted, while there would be little interest from other top teams, the strong possibility of a Mexican Grand Prix and his longtime backing from Telmex would surely mean less affluent teams would welcome Sergio with open arms. But they're not where he wants to be; he knows that driving for McLaren is a rare opportunity for any racing driver.
And that dream isn't over yet. Given the team's troubles and a vastly experienced world champion as his measuring stick, Perez is roughly where most would expect him to be. Whitmarsh said in Singapore that the McLaren lineup is likely to remain unchanged for 2014, which suggests that, unless Alonso becomes unexpectedly available in the next couple of months, Sergio's seat is reasonably secure.
But 2015 is quite another matter. Whatever the competitiveness of its cars each season, McLaren has established itself as a team that can provide its drivers with a solid support system, because it has so much manpower and technical resource at its disposal. If a driver is not perceived to be using those facilities in order to fulfill his potential and improve his results on-track, then this can only be regarded as a wasted opportunity.
Given that driver-team contracts are often agreed upon (if not signed or announced) long before they come into effect, Perez probably has the remaining six races of 2013 and perhaps ten more in 2014 in which to prove worthy of what remains one of Formula 1's most desirable seats. McLaren's high standards, together with Honda's imminent return, means that mere adequacy will no longer be adequate. It's time to use it or lose it.