Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Korean Grand Prix

Perez's predicament
After the excitement of the Korean Grand Prix was over I amused myself by taking a look at the latest 2013 drivers' standings (yes, I am tragic). One thing in particular leapt out at me: the positioning of Sergio Perez. He's totalled a mere 23 points, which for illustration is eight fewer than Nico Hulkenberg (who's spent most of the year in a recalcitrant Sauber), as well as is shy of the totals of either Force India pilot and only five clear of Daniel Ricciardo.

Even more absurdly, he's accumulated barely a third of the points he managed over last season for Sauber, 65, before his supposed step-up. That year too he could claim three podium finishes including one near miss of victory; this campaign his best result is a sixth place. But, I can hear Perez-defenders shout, a lot of this can be attributed to the McLaren MP4-28, which has not been a good one. His intra-team yardstick comparison however isn't flattering either. Button has well more than double Checo's score, 58, and is also up 8-6 in qualifying; this is Button remember, not known as a demon over a single lap, someone who has started from pole only once in the last four-and-a-half years (despite being at the sharp end more generally for most of that time). Some have even whispered that Button - without Hamilton pushing him along and with an uncompetitive machine - isn't quite at the top of his form right now either. And even at the best of times he's perhaps more of a number one-and-a-half rather than a number one in the Alonso, Hamilton or Vettel mold. If Perez has designs on being all that you'd think he'd be a bit closer.

Sergio Perez's season has been a disappointing one
Photo: Octane Photography
I'd always thought of McLaren's choice of Perez to replace Lewis Hamilton on its driving staff for this year as an odd one: even last season when he could boast some strong results (if you don't believe me see here and here). Yes, the three podium runs of 2012 were impressive but you wondered how much of them were down to a magic touch on the delicate Pirelli tyres from the C31 if voodoo-like factors aligned. Results otherwise were patchy, there were a few errors, particularly in the rounds after his McLaren contract was signed. Word in the paddock had it that Sauber wasn't all that thrilled with him either, feeling that the car was capable of more than he tended to deliver. And perhaps now Ferrari's reluctance to promote him to the big team - Perez was part of the Scuderia's young driver's programme - makes sense. Perhaps its insouciance over losing him does too.

As for explaining McLaren's decision, I have a pet theory that the team never expected Lewis Hamilton to leave, despite the delay over him confirming his future plans (indeed, it's said that it was a Singapore meeting with Niki Lauda that led to a Damascene conversion from Lewis). When Lewis did confirm he was off McLaren was unprepared, but determined to get its announcement of a replacement out before Lewis to Merc was made public, so to present it as a good news story. Therefore the team didn't give its selection as much care and attention as it usually would, and it was within this set of circumstances that the Woking squad plumped for Perez. It perhaps wasn't coincidence either that this all happened in the aftermath of last year's Italian Grand Prix, when Perez was getting inflated praise following his runner-up finish.

You could argue that his McLaren performances are more of the same as with Sauber: patchy, peppered with errors, with a vague accompanying suspicion that we should be getting more. It's concerning too that when seeking to solve one problem in his driving others are created. When Martin Whitmarsh told him to 'get his elbows out' as far as a few rivals were concerned he then went too far. After that criticism some of his final tenths of pace seemed to evaporate. And even within the wavering performances McLaren apparently has noted too that even his high tide watermarks aren't all that high. Whatever is the case, there's no secret being made of the fact that his position is under review; that the team is expecting more. Of course this all sounds harsh, but F1 is a harsh business, particularly so when you occupy a much-sought-after seat at a team that has exacting standards.

It nevertheless seems probable that Perez will be retained at McLaren for next year, but beyond that his fate is far less certain, particularly with Alonso rumours continuing to circulate and Honda cash available to tempt most drivers. Perez must start to deliver and soon.


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    1. Hi George. Thanks very much for your comments and for your kind words, it's very nice to hear! Sorry for being a bit slow responding.

      You make a lot of good points. And of course Perez hasn't been *bad* this year, indeed so long as an Alonso or someone similar doesn't become available I think Perez has just about done enough to deserve another year at McLaren. But to stay beyond that I think he needs to improve. That's not to say he can't, drivers can always improve, sometimes beyond recognition (Nigel Mansell's in-career improvement is the quintessential example).

      And you're right too that whatever was the case for his three podiums finishes Perez still had to go out and get the job done, and he did so with a lot of flair and confidence. But still, I don't think it's quite as straightforward as to allow us to say 'well, Kobayashi didn't do the same thing'. There is a lot of voodoo about the Pirelli tyres, and I suspect that the three performances with race-day pace that beggared belief baffled Sauber as much as anyone (that they didn't do it every time, or do it much this year, suggests as much). And in the cases of Canada and Monza Perez was helped by a contrary strategy, which wouldn't have been possible in all likelihood had he qualified in the top ten (indeed, that's why Kobayashi didn't do the same strategy at Monza).

      You compare him too with Kobayashi, but we shouldn't forget that even without the high-tide watermarks that Perez had Kobayashi only finished six points shy of Perez last year (66 to 60), and the qualifying match-up was close too (11-9 to Perez). And yet Kobayashi's reward was the boot from F1!

      With all this, in my view it was always a bit of a leap of faith for McLaren to throw its lot in with Perez, and thus his slightly underwhelming performances this year haven't really been a big surprise to me.

      You make a good point too at the point McLaren signed Perez that Hulkenberg's star hadn't quite risen yet (it wouldn't until the late 2012). So some are being Monday morning quarterbacks on McLaren's selection. But to play devil's advocate, you could say the Hulkenberg option would have become more obvious to McLaren if it had not announced its Lewis replacement as quickly as it did. If nothing else, I don't understand what the rush was on McLaren's part, beyond a desire to save face as I suggested. Most available drivers would have crawled the length of the pitlane on broken glass to get a McLaren opportunity, thus surely would have held off signing elsewhere before McLaren made their selection.

    2. Pleasure’s all mine!

      I fully concur with what you say and this is why I also believe Perez should be given at least another year. With him settled at the team and hopefully with a much better car than this year’s effort (although the new regulations may yet skew this, we do not know) I feel strongly that Perez can achieve much with the team as his drives last year, while admittedly on a different strategy (kudos for reminding me of that, by the way) prove his talent.

      I feel tremendously for Kobayashi. He is without question deserving of a F1 seat and I have sorely missed his wonderful if haphazard overtaking manoeuvres. But it goes to show as you have said numerous times that unfortunately money talks, which is why Kobayashi is not in F1 and drivers like Esteban Gutierrez (and Sergey Sirotkin in 2014 presuming he gets a licence) are. I know that seems incredibly harsh on the young Mexican but he seems tremendously out of his depth even if he has shown signs of improvement recently. With a bit of luck Kobayashi can return and get a move to Williams or maybe even a testing capacity somewhere.

      Same goes for Hulkenberg. Why do teams keep overlooking him? He has raw pace, is a demon over taker and can be unnervingly consistent. Take Brazil 2012 and that brilliant drive at Monza this year. But again, I think Perez’s links with Telmex and the huge money they bring helped him out too. Hopefully Hulkenberg can get a Lotus drive.