Sergio Perez came to Red Bull Racing at the ultimate career crossroads. He lost his ride at what is now Aston Martin Racing early in the 2021 season, caught in between Sebastian Vettel's newfound availability and Lance Stroll's family ties to team owner Lawrence Stroll. When he went on to be the biggest surprise of the year, that decision seemed to age poorly. By the time he won in Bahrain, it seemed downright untenable. Perez seemed like he would be out of F1 one year after a career breakout. Then, he got a promising call.
This is the seventeenth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2022 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Red Bull. You can find the rest of our previews here.
Red Bull, as it turns out, had an opening. They had decided development driver Alex Albon was an odd fit at the senior team and had no interest in bringing up either of their junior drivers at AlphaTauri, so they called up Perez. What followed was an exceptional second driver season, one that ended with Verstappen's first career championship.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Perez came to F1 with relatively little fanfare. His first few seasons in cars were unspectacular and he did not put up a meaningful season result in international competition until he finished second in the 2010 GP2 Series. That got him to Sauber for 2011, beginning one of the strangest careers in the sport.
Perez had highlight races for two years at Sauber. That led him to an unexpected call-up to McLaren, as a direct replacement for Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately for him, this was the year McLaren fell from glory; he actually finished one spot lower than he did the year prior with Sauber and was pushed out of the ride for Kevin Magnussen.
He instead landed at Force India, then a consistently strong mid-pack team. He stayed there, as a great driver on a strong mid-pack team, for five years before it was sold to Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll. That led the team to great heights in a surprisingly excellent 2020 as Racing Point, but it led Perez into a situation where his once-stable ride disappeared overnight.
Fortunately for him, his landing spot was an even better program. Perez, for the second time in his career, landed at a contender he had never been affiliated with before entirely off the power of his finishes in races for a mid-pack team.
HOW 2021 WENT
While Perez clearly trailed Verstappen for the entire season, it was by design. The team made no secret of the fact that he was Red Bull's second driver behind their in-house-developed star, so the role was the one Perez signed on to play.
While he lost his head-to-head duel with Valtteri Bottas (and, by extend, Red Bull's chance at a constructor's championship) over the course of the year, he excelled in the individual moments where Red Bull needed him most. None were more apparent than his laps-long blocking effort in the season finale at Abu Dhabi. His lone win of the year, a strong result at Baku after Verstappen crashed out and Hamilton blew a final-lap restart from the red flag, was similarly strong.
That left him fourth in the driver's standings with one win and five podiums. A respectable first showing at the team.
GOALS FOR 2022
What comes next may be more difficult. While Red Bull and Mercedes are again the favorites entering the first race of the season, an entirely new car concept should open the door for at least one more team to fight their four entries for race wins on a weekly basis. That makes the job much harder for Perez, who will have to contend with significantly more competition and, effectively, fight more cars in his class as his role grows in both complication and importance.
The end goal is still the same, though: Help Red Bull secure a driver's championship for Max Verstappen and a constructor's championship for the program. He is a second driver, and that is what second drivers do.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
With that in mind, a successful season for Perez is one where the team accomplishes both goals. Last year, they only accomplished one of the two.
To get both, he'll need to outrun new Mercedes #2 George Russell consistently and strike whenever the opportunity to beat Mercedes #1 Lewis Hamilton in any given race arises. With the right car, both are plausible. Neither will be easy.
In a season where wins may be harder to come by, two wins on the way to a championship finish of fourth or better would mark a very successful individual year. Both are significantly less important for Perez and his future at the program than what he can do for Verstappen as a driver and Red Bull as a team.