Can Sergio Perez Actually Win an F1 Championship?
Sergio Perez is not employed by Red Bull to win championships. He is there to help Verstappen from second when possible, as he did through all of 2021, and to win the races lead driver Max Verstappen does not, as he did in today's Grand Prix of Azerbaijan. With the 2023 Red Bull looking unbeatable through its first four races, all of that makes what is setting up this season a little bit awkward.
Red Bull has won all four grands prix and the lone sprint race held this season, all in dominant fashion. Despite the major differences in both their resumes and the clear stated interests of Red Bull, however, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez have split those full-length races down the middle. Perez also won the sprint, and now he sits just six points behind the two-time reigning champion. It is too soon to draw meaningful conclusions, but a similar gap at the halfway mark of the season would suggest that this championship may actually be in play between the Red Bull teammates.
Now, championship standings in the first handful of races of a season are rarely a perfect barometer of how a season will end. Just last year, Charles Leclerc left Australia with a commanding 46-point lead; he would go on to finish 146 point behind Max Verstappen. Red Bull has plenty of time to ensure Verstappen wins the next few races and create some separation on Sergio Perez. The danger is what happens if they do not plan ahead to create separation between their expected lead and second drivers before the back half of the season, where it currently seems likely that Red Bull will have a more clear understanding that they have no outside championship threats. As Mercedes learned in 2016, that is how you get an internal war.
Nico Rosberg was outscored by seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton in every season the pair raced together but 2016. That year, Rosberg took a commanding early lead on his teammate by winning the season's first four races. In the fifth, the infamous 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, Rosberg and Hamilton collided on track for a double retirement and one of only two races not won by Mercedes that season. Hamilton was the more effective driver over the remainder of the season, but Rosberg won five more times and his lead held for an unlikely championship. The title is still a point of pride for both Rosberg and Mercedes, but it certainly was not the team's expected goal heading into the season.
Red Bull is not quite in a situation that close yet. Although Perez and Verstappen have split the season's first four wins, their lead driver still has a championship advantage heading into round five. That makes setting the table for Verstappen to pull away from here far easier for Christian Horner's team politically. By creating that separation over the early Summer rounds, they can allow Verstappen to build an insurmountable cushion and coast to his third title.
That is the expectation, but Sergio Perez can force the issue by simply fighting for race wins anyway. This is a danger for Perez politically, as it could put his future with the team at risk. Rosberg solved this problem by simply retiring after winning the title, and Perez could do whatever he wanted if he were to secure a championship, too. Actually securing the championship over Verstappen would still pose a significant and likely insurmountable challenge, but Perez is running well in equal, seemingly unbeatable equipment to the reigning champion. If he wants to be an F1 world driver's championship winner, he will never have a better shot to win a title than he does right now.
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