Sergio Perez's unexpected ascent has shifted the goalposts at Red Bull

·4 min read
Sergio Perez's unexpected ascent has shifted the goalposts at Red Bull - GETTY IMAGES
Sergio Perez's unexpected ascent has shifted the goalposts at Red Bull - GETTY IMAGES

The ancient art of wrestling is officially Azerbaijan’s national sport. And while it is the more modern pursuit of Formula One which is set to rock the former Soviet republic this weekend, there will be no shortage of mano-a-mano battles in Baku. Not least between team-mates.

Sergio Perez’s win in Monaco last time out has added another intriguing dimension to a season which is becoming increasingly difficult to call. The Mexican’s victory - only his third in over 200 starts dating back to 2011 - has lifted the 32-year-old to within 15 points of Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen at the top of the drivers’ standings.

It has also provided the 2022 season with yet another case of a ‘No 2’ driver taking it to the main man at his team.

With George Russell having beaten Mercedes superior Lewis Hamilton at every race going back to the first in Bahrain, and Carlos Sainz closing the gap to Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc in the last couple of races, that is now all three of the sport’s leading teams who have genuine intra-team battles on their hands.

Perez’s challenge to Verstappen is arguably the most fascinating of all, if only because it is the least expected.

It has become a longstanding truism at Red Bull that Verstappen destroys his team-mates to such a degree they are eventually forced to leave the team. Perez himself had trouble keeping pace with the Dutchman in his debut season with Red Bull last year, when he scored less than half the points of the world champion in the same car.

But he appears far more comfortable with the new regulations this season, claiming an impressive maiden pole position in Saudi Arabia in March, fighting for victory again in Spain before winning in Monaco after being the clearly quicker Red Bull driver all weekend.

And while his relationship with Verstappen appears to be solid, it may not stay that way forever. Red Bull were accused of "favouring" the Mexican in Monaco by none other than Verstappen’s father Jos, who said the team "threw away" 10 points for his son, who finished third.

"Max was not helped by the chosen strategy. It turned completely to Checo's favour," Verstappen Snr wrote in a column on Max Verstappen's official site. "That was disappointing to me, and I would have liked it to be different for the championship leader."

The fact Perez has since signed a new deal with Red Bull until the end of 2024, and is clearly more confident than ever, saying he is in "the best moment of his career", means the dynamic at Red Bull is going to be intriguing to watch from here on in.

It should be noted, too, that Azerbaijan is a race at which the Mexican has traditionally performed well, winning last year and finishing three times on the podium.

"He [Perez] is starting to become a little bit of a thorn in the side, maybe, for Max Verstappen," mused Sky Sports’ pundit Johnny Herbert this week. "We've got some brilliant stuff coming our way because those two Red Bull drivers really get it together when we get to Azerbaijan and who knows who is going to come out of it on top?"

That is the case, too, at Mercedes. Hamilton has clearly suffered more than his share of misfortune this season, without which he would be a lot closer to Russell than the championship standings suggest. But the seven-time champion really needs a big race to reassert himself. As do Mercedes.

Team principal Toto Wolff claimed after the team’s performance in Barcelona that they were “back in the title fight” having finally got on top of their porpoising issues. Wolff refused to back down on that claim in Monaco two weeks ago despite the porpoising returning with a vengeance, putting the team’s struggles in the principality down to the slow-speed nature of the circuit.

Baku’s street circuit is far faster and there will be a lot of interest to see whether Mercedes are back to where they were in Barcelona or whether it was the Spain race which was the anomaly. An intriguing weekend awaits.