Sergio Perez’s popular Sakhir victory only piled more pressure onto Red Bull Racing and the under-fire Alex Albon switch drivers in 2021.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
It took Sergio Perez so long to win his first race that when he took the chequered flag first at the Sakhir Grand Prix he wasn’t sure whether he’d really done it.
“I hope I’m not dreaming,” he said. “I’ve dreamt for so many years of being in this moment.”
After 10 years, 190 starts, nine podiums and a trio of second-place finishes Perez had turned his dream into a reality and mounted the top step of the podium.
By all measures it had been a long time coming.
His Sauber debut in 2011 was impressive, but it was the following season he really made his mark. He raced two-time champion Fernando Alonso for victory in Malaysia and collected two more podiums by season’s end.
It was enough to earn him a call-up to grandee McLaren the following year.
But what should have been a dream turned quickly into a nightmare. No-one was to know that McLaren was at the beginning of a long, steep, dark decline from which it is still attempting to recover. Perez was collateral, and he was turfed after a single season.
He sought refuge at Force India, where he rebuilt his reputation as a dependably quick midfielder and regular podium-getter in an era during which podiums are hard to come by for all but a few teams.
Force India became Racing Point under new and better-funded ownership and this year has moved up the grid with designs on becoming a regular frontrunner. But just as Perez’s machinery has started becoming more competitive, he was axed again, this time mid-contract, to make room for Sebastian Vettel in 2021.
And yet despite the uncertainty of his season — from rumours of his demise and missing two races with COVID-19 to overhearing his team boss on the phone confirming his axing before having the news broken personally — Perez has had the strongest campaign of his career.
Having scored points every time he’s finished, he sits fourth in the championship standings behind only the Mercedes drivers and Max Verstappen and has a 13-point advantage over the rest, including 51 points on teammate Lance Stroll — and that’s after skipping two races with COVID.
Still without a contract, this win takes on a certain poignancy.
There is, however, one seat still up for grabs: Alex Albon’s drive at Red Bull Racing.
The Thai driver has struggled in his sophomore F1 season to match teammate Max Verstappen, one of the sport’s most ferocious competitors. On average more than half a second off the pace in qualifying and a whopping 96 points and eight places down in the standings, the team has thus far been reluctant to reward him with a new deal.
Red Bull Racing has openly flirted with the idea of swapping in Perez in 2021, and the Mexican admits it’s his only hope of a drive in 2021. But the team is desperate not to break its ethos of internal promotion and has thus extended its decision deadline until after the end of the season to give Albon every chance to sell himself.
But while Albon struggles have grown as the pressure amps up, Perez has shone despite his own fraught circumstances. His win in Sakhir, when both Mercedes cars finished down the order thanks to pit stop problems and Verstappen crashed out on the first lap, would have stung Red Bull Racing — those are exactly the situations Albon is expected to pick up the pieces. Instead he finished sixth, again mired in the midfield.
Perez, with 10 years of proven experience and a race winner at last, has made the strongest possible offer to make him Max Verstappen’s teammate.
Can Red Bull Racing possibly refuse?