Red Bull’s quest to find a second driver to provide suitable backup and support to number one driver Max Verstappen will come into sharp focus in Barcelona today.
Once again, Verstappen is right where he needs to be, on the front row of the grid, where he’ll start from second place alongside polesitter Lewis Hamilton at the Spanish Grand Prix.
But, while the flying Dutchman was able to squeeze all of the performance from his Red Bull to come within 36 thousands of a second of Hamilton’s pole time, the same couldn’t be said of Verstappen’s team-mate.
Perez will start from row four after qualifying in eighth place, more than nine tenths of a second behind Hamilton and Verstappen at the head of the field.
The Mexican’s qualifying performance contrasts markedly with that of Hamilton’s Mercedes colleague.
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Valtteri Bottas – despite the seemingly ever-present rumours linking him with a possible exit from the team by the season’s end, or earlier – was on the pace throughout qualifying and turned in a best lap just 0.132 off Hamilton’s pole time.
It means that, while Hamilton has a wingman in close proximity to help Mercedes fend off the hard-charging Verstappen in the crucial early stages of the race, Verstappen himself has been left to fly solo, with Perez languishing mid-pack.
Despite a season that saw him run in the top six in 10 of last season’s 17 races for the Racing Point team, Perez has not yet been able to translate his move to Red Bull into consistently improved results on the track.
While Verstappen has picked up one race win and claimed two second places from the three races so far this season, Perez has yet to make a podium appearance, with a fifth and a fourth sandwiching an 11th-place finish at Imola.
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And, on a track that Perez knows well, in weather conditions that were perfect for solid running, the Mexican was unable to make an impression on the sharp end of the grid.
That was due in large part to Perez feeling unwell throughout the qualifying session. But now, all eyes will be on how he fares from his midfield starting position as he looks to scythe his way through the pack and give chase to the front runners in a bid to boost Red Bull’s fortunes.
The car is clearly competitive in the right hands – Verstappen’s ability to consistently match or better the Mercedes’ for pace in both qualifying and race trim shows that.
But as a manufacturer, Red Bull are targeting the Constructors’ Championship as well as the Drivers’ Championship, and to be successful in the former, they need Perez to step up and rediscover the form that saw him score an incredible first career victory last season.
That performance, that saw Perez surge through the field as he went from last to first in a topsy-turvy race in Bahrain, gave him a memorable first win that, in no small part, helped secure his seat with Red Bull for this season.
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When he’s on form, there’s little doubt that Perez is one of the most exciting drivers on the grid.
But being exciting in flashes while racing for a midfield team is one thing – being exciting while maintaining consistency at the very front of the elite motor racing series in the world is a different task altogether.
His lowly starting position means he may not win this afternoon, but Perez’s performance could be a real indicator of whether Christian Horner and Red Bull have chosen the right man to partner Verstappen as they take the fight to Mercedes in 2021.
The title fight will continue to rage on at the front, but keep a close eye on Perez. His race could deliver the story of the day.
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