Perez carries the hopes of a nation at the Mexican GP

    • Joined ESPN in 2009
    • An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011

MEXICO CITY — The main road approaching the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was at a standstill 30 minutes before the opening practice session of the Mexican Grand Prix on Friday morning. Traffic jams are not uncommon in Mexico City, but this one was locked solid for at least two miles and growing in length as cars and buses fought for position to unload their passengers at the circuit gates.

A small army of police officers attempted to organise the chaos, but only succeeded in inching one lane of traffic forward at the expense of another. As the clock ticked down to the first F1 action of the weekend, the sense of impatience was tangible as Mexico City’s thin air was filled with the sound of car horns and whistles.

Such scenes are rare ahead of a practice day at a grand prix, but this was no ordinary F1 Friday. The pandemic has starved Mexico City of Formula One action for over two years and the locals — many of which held on to their tickets from the cancelled 2020 event — are keen to make the most of every track session over the race weekend.

Motorsport has always been popular in Mexico, but the rise of local hero Sergio Perez since F1 returned to the country in 2015 has only heightened the fever. The race promoter claims to have sold 130,000 tickets for all three days of the event and is convinced it could have sold 40,000 more if it had the capacity.

Since he last raced on home soil in 2019, Perez — Mexico’s only current F1 driver — has been through a remarkable 24 months. At the end of 2020 he finally took his first F1 victory after ten years of trying, and in 2021 he was rewarded with a drive at Red Bull, one of the sport’s top teams.

But for those at the back of the traffic jam, the only hope of seeing Perez the same morning was on one of the many roadside billboards carrying his image. From used cars to cans of Red Bull, photos of “Checo,” as he is known in Mexico, are used to sell it all.

Even before a wheel had turned at the circuit on Friday, he was the only story in town. The sports newspaper, Cancha, carried the headline “conflicto a la vista,” or “conflict in sight,” below a picture of Perez wearing his special-edition mariachi-inspired overalls, draped in a Mexican flag. The prospect of Perez having a race-winning car at his home race had gotten the local media talking.

The gist of the article was whether Red Bull would let Perez win the Mexican Grand Prix if he happens to be leading his Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen on track in Sunday’s race. Unlike Perez, Verstappen is challenging for the title this year and every point will be crucial in his quest to beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

But would Red Bull really deprive Perez a home victory — and the chance to light the blue touch paper on one of the biggest parties Mexico City has ever seen — just to give Verstappen seven more points?

It’s a question Perez was unwilling to answer on Thursday, but one his team principal, Christian Horner, could not avoid on Friday.

“That’s an incredibly tough one,” Horner said when asked about using team orders to give Verstappen a victory ahead of Perez. “Our main objective is to win both championships, and both drivers know the task involved to achieve that.

“There are so many scenarios and what-ifs that can happen, and it would depend on where our opponents are. So you can’t rule it out, you can’t rule it in.

“Our preference, if Checo were in that position, would be for him to win his home race. There is no bigger result for a home driver but as a team we have to keep an eye on both of these championships and know what is at stake.

“This race, like any other, has the same amount of points and therefore we treat it like any other race.”

It is, of course, all hypothetical.

Perez has won just one grand prix this year — in Azerbaijan — after Verstappen retired from the lead of the race with a tire failure a few laps from the finish. His performances this season have left a lot to be desired and have often not been good enough to finish on the podium. He only recently regained fourth in the drivers’ standings from McLaren’s Lando Norris and remains 35 points behind his opposite number at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas.

In truth, he would need to execute the performance of his career to stand a chance of beating Verstappen in a straight fight in Mexico, but the chance of a fairy tale result — after so many years being stuck in uncompetitive cars — will be enough to amplify the atmosphere at the circuit over the weekend.

That much was evident on the first lap of the first practice session on Friday morning. The stadium section of the track, which doubles back on itself in the former playing field of the Foro Sol baseball stadium, erupted at the first sight of Perez on track.

Even with the Mexico City traffic limiting grandstand capacity to no more than 60% for the start of the session, the roar from the crowd could be heard over the bangs and pops from Perez’s Honda engine as he cruised past the grandstands. If he happens to lead the race through the same section of track on Sunday, the volume will be turned up ten times over.

“It’s great to have so much support,” Perez said after Friday practice. “To look at everyone here being so enthusiastic and pushing me hard. Every time I bring the car to a stop, I can hear them and it’s only Friday, so very grateful for the support.”

But a reminder of the challenge Perez faces this weekend came a handful of laps later, when his car ended up backwards in the barriers just beyond the stadium. The crash broke the rear wing of his Red Bull and resulted in a 30-minute repair job, costing him crucial track time versus his rivals.

By the end of the second session, Perez was fourth fastest overall, 0.570s off teammate Verstappen and slower than the two Mercedes drivers.

“It was a shame that we damaged the car and gave a bit of extra work to the boys,” Perez added. “But other than that it was a positive day.

“I’m feeling more comfortable in the long run than over the one lap. So I think there is potential to improve the car over one lap.

“The margins are going to be very close tomorrow with the Mercs, so hopefully we’re able to lock out that front row.”

From second on the grid anything is possible. The long run down to Turn 1 means the positions between the top two cars in qualifying can often reverse ahead of the first braking zone, and there’s little doubt Perez would take the opportunity if a clean overtake presented itself. That would put the pressure on his team to make a call over team orders and get the crowd on his side to try to swing the decision in his favour. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

One thing is for sure, the local fans will dare to dream.

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