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How Sergio Perez can silence doubters and retain 2024 Red Bull seat

Six months ago, it was all so rosy for Red Bull. Four races into the 2023 season and it was two apiece for Max Verstappen and Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez, with the Mexican seemingly signalling his intent to be a genuine contender for the championship with a sprint and race victory in Azerbaijan. After all, no car could come close to the speed generated by Red Bull design-guru Adrian Newey and his team of top-tier engineers this season.

Even in Miami a week later, Perez looked set to take the lead in the standings after claiming pole position, with Verstappen down in ninth. But since the Dutchman stormed to victory, propelling past his team-mate with relative ease, it has been one-way traffic. And while Verstappen has won every race bar one since then, amid an unprecedented winning streak, Perez’s form has fallen off a cliff.

Since Miami, Perez has recorded just four podiums in 13 races in the fastest car on the grid – and none in his last four meets. On the contrary to challenging Verstappen for the title, he is now looking over his shoulder as he tries to seal second place.

“I think there was a decisive moment this year which was probably in Miami where Checo had, if you like, an open goal,” said his boss Christian Horner. “He’d won two races in Azerbaijan and Saudi and you could see his confidence was high.

“I think that Max, winning that race… I think mentally that was quite a brutal one for Checo to deal with.”

Nothing, in fact, symbolised Perez’s struggles more than when he handed Verstappen the title by crashing out of the sprint race in Qatar, tangling with back-of-the-pack cars down the order. The Dutchman did not even need to finish to wrap up championship No 3.

And so, quite inevitably and despite holding a contract until the end of 2024, speculation has swirled about Perez’s future. Some of the criticism has been justified, but some has been over-the-top for a man who has dedicated the last 13 years of his life to Formula 1. Last month, the 33-year-old revealed he’d hired a mental coach to “become the best version of myself at home, but also as a driver.”

But while no one can question his dedication to the sport, Red Bull can ill-afford to carry a passenger next season amid their current period of domination. A lack of obvious contenders to replace him – with the likes of Lando Norris and Alex Albon all held under long-term contracts – helps his cause and Perez does indeed have his short-term future in his own hands.

Yet Albon’s own demise at Red Bull at the end of 2020 shows Horner and Helmut Marko aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers if needs be. Watching across at the sister team as well is nine-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo, desperate for another shot at the big time.

So, what can Perez do? By the end of the season-finale in Abu Dhabi next month, he needs to have secured second in the championship. That is the minimum. Such is Red Bull’s ridiculous pace this year, being caught by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton would represent something of a downbeat conclusion at the end of a peerless year for Red Bull, who’ve never registered a one-two season-end finish.

But what Perez will want most of all is a statement performance; a weekend display of driving which proves he still deserves his spot at the top-table. At least for now.

In practice on Friday, Perez was three-tenths of a second off his team-mate Verstappen, who unsurprisingly recorded the quickest time amidst the altitude of Mexico City, with Williams’ Albon sandwiched in-between.

There would be no place better than his home race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez to silence the naysayers. A third podium in Mexico City would be satisfactory; a shock victory would be a dream.

But the truth is it doesn’t have to come this weekend. Either one of the three races thereafter – in Brazil, Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi – gives Perez an opportunity. It doesn’t even need to be a podium; a drive from towards the back of the grid to near the front, with some exquisite racing, would prove he still has what it takes.

If not, three years on from saving his F1 skin with a shock call-up at Red Bull for the unfortunate Albon, Perez himself could be the recipient of the ruthlessness of the Red Bull merry-go-round. Time to deliver, Checo.

Alex Albon, centre, lost his seat to Perez for the 2021 season but now the Mexican’s future is hanging in the balance

Xural.com

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