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Formula 1 drivers are among a rarified few. At any given time, just 20 people get to strap into one of these four-wheeled fighter jets and go wheel-to-wheel in search of victory. That alone makes it hard to feel any genuine sorrow for any of them. However, within each of these helmeted contenders is a human being. It’s easy to forget. But every now and then, you catch a glimpse. And Sergio Perez gave one such look at the Mexico Grand Prix.

It’s easy to forget the humanity of F1 drivers

Often, it’s a moment of pure joy. An underdog finding victory. A comeback story. A driver unheralded but suddenly victorious. But sometimes, moments of humanity come in the form of abject misery. In the case of Sergio Perez in 2023, that’s exactly where we are.

Desperation isn’t a uniquely human emotion. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. Desperation is what leads the cornered rabbit to fight off a hunting fox. Under the weight of desperation, even the gentlest creatures become prize fighters.

On the other hand, desperation lures that same rabbit into the hunter’s trap. The hunt for food in the depths of winter can feel futile. Then, suddenly, a perfectly placed crumb of sustenance. But just when the rabbit thinks it’s found hope, it’s snatched away. Desperation made it easy to miss the hazardous snare placed around that bit of tasty apple.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that it was too good to be true. But in the moment, the thing you want, the thing you need, is right in front of you.

Sergio Perez in an unenviable position

Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez ahead of the 2023 Formula 1 Grand Prix of Mexico
Max Verstappen (L) and Sergio Perez (R) introduced ahead of the 2023 Formula 1 Grand Prix of Mexico | Jared C. Tilton via Getty Images

For Sergio Perez, desperation became his undoing. This weekend’s Mexico Grand Prix carried more significance for Perez. This is his home. The land that created Checo is also home to the 19th race on the 2023 Formula 1 calendar. It came at the perfect time as Perez needed, like a rabbit in winter, to find some sustenance.

This was, in essence, a race for survival. It’s no secret that Perez’s life, his racing life, anyway, hangs in the balance. The once-touted wheelman finds himself alongside a teammate who can do no wrong. It’s not Perez’s fault he’s in this situation. When you’re offered a seat at one of the best teams at the pinnacle of motorsport, you take it.

Racing drivers, at their core, have to be confident. Formula 1, at its core, is all about the equipment. If Perez believed in himself, there was no reason to believe he couldn’t match Max Verstappen in the same car. But you don’t know what you don’t know. And it wasn’t until Perez sat beside Verstappen that it became clear that it’s not just the car.

So begins the sojourn. The same confidence and determination that took Perez from racing go-karts in Mexico to the heights of Formula 1 can surely help him find the same pace as his world-champion teammate, right? But Verstappen is more than just a winner. He’s a generational talent.

We’ve seen this story before. Nobody looked good at Ferrari except Michael Schumacher. Other than a single season, Lewis Hamilton’s teammates have paled in comparison. This is just another version of that same story. But this one, somehow, appears much more stark.

Comparing Sergio Perez to Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen and team poses with the 2023 F1 Grand Prix of Mexico trophies.
Max Verstappen and team celebrate winning the 2023 Grand Prix of Mexico | Jared C. Tilton via Getty Images

In their first year together, Sergio Perez and Red Bull performed well. Perez notched a win and a handful of podiums in 2021. Moreover, he was instrumental in slowing Lewis Hamilton, allowing Max Verstappen to close a seven-second gap and ultimately battle for the championship.

In 2022, Checo showed even more promise. The Mexican-born driver locked up a pair of victories en route to a third-place championship showing. Hopes were high that Perez could go better in 2023. So far, that hasn’t been the case.

However, it didn’t start that way. With two victories in the first four races in 2023, there was talk of a strong intrateam battle for the World Driver’s Championship at Red Bull. But driving a car developed with his teammate in mind, Perez needed to drastically alter his driving style to have a chance. And as development with this new-style Formula 1 car continues, the scales tip even further in Max’s direction.

So far in 2023, Perez’s results have been nothing short of tragic. That’s hard to believe, considering he clings to second in the standings. But when your teammate has the championship clinched with five races to go, and you’re still battling to hang on to the runner-up spot, it’s safe to say something’s gone awry.

While Verstappen has managed 16 race victories in 2023, Checo has just seven podiums to his name. And as the season continues, those good showings get fewer and farther between. This weekend’s retirement marks the fifth consecutive race without Perez in the top three finishers.

Perez’s disastrous Mexico GP

There aren’t many bright spots in Perez’s 2023 season. But in front of his home crowd this weekend, the man they call Checo found a new low. First, he was out-qualified by his likely replacement, Daniel Ricciardo, driving for Alpha Tauri.

That team is almost never at the top end of the grid, and its position as Red Bull’s second-tier outfit makes the result even more humiliation for Perez. That put Perez fifth while Verstappen qualified third. Ferrari locked out the front row, with Ricciardo slotted into fourth.

Starting the race from the third row, Perez shot to the left, immediately past Ricciardo and onto the back of pole-winner Charles LeClerc. That put Perez on the outside of a three-wide situation into Turn 1. More to the point, all Perez could see was the opportunity to snatch the lead in front of his home crowd. He had a chance to turn his season, and his prospects of staying in Formula 1 around in one fell swoop. And that’s when it hit.


What makes the Mexico GP unique

Turn 1 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is tricky under the best of circumstances. The wide front straight narrows into a sharp, 90-degree right-hand turn, followed immediately by a 90-degree left and another 90-degree right. Going three wide into this complex is ill-advised, bordering on futile. Calamity is all but guaranteed. But Perez wasn’t going to be the one to back out.

Instead, he squeezed right, sandwiching LeClerc toward Verstappen just ahead of the corner. From there, the result was rather predictable. LeClerc held his ground with Verstappen to his right. Perez, already turning, connected his right rear wheel with LeClerc’s left front. The resulting contact launched Perez into the air and ultimately into the turn 1 runoff area.

Speaking to F1 TV, Checo said, a hint of pleading in his eyes, “The gap was there and, obviously, as a driver, you take the risk, going three cars into one with these wide cars.” The Mexican driver continued, saying, “I took a risk…I paid a high price for it.” Even he may not realize just how high that price actually is.

This may be the final straw for Red Bull

It was a defining moment in what has been a season to forget for Checo. And it made one of the most fortunate human beings on planet earth look so vulnerably human. Desperation turned to despair before the race even really started. It’s something we’ve all felt to some degree. Wanting something so deeply that we lose context in the process. It’s a costly mindset, to be sure. But that dogged pursuit can be fruitful, so we carry on until there’s nothing left.

There is a chance that even under different circumstances, Perez makes a similar move. But without such deep desperation, maybe he gives LeClerc a little extra space. Or maybe he slots into second, knowing that the Ferrari can’t hold pace for long. Odds are, Sergio Perez was never beating Max Verstappen in Mexico. But his desperate situation called for a statement.

Getting the lead from fifth and holding on to finish first or second would certainly send a message that he has what it takes. Perez himself said as much to Sky Sports, saying, “I would be really disappointed to be on the podium today knowing I had a chance to go for the lead and I didn’t take it.”

But falling into third early and finishing a nearly guaranteed second would have done him just as well in the eyes of the team. Instead, Perez has yet another DNF and sits just 20 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton for third in the driver’s championship. And that result won’t do Checo any favors when it’s time for Red Bull to decide his fate.

Is Sergio Perez out at Red Bull?

Nothing is set in stone at the moment, but the Mexico GP is just the latest setback for Sergio Perez. But with Daniel Ricciardo’s strong showing and a Red Bull 1-2 championship finish now in danger, Perez needs to recover quickly if he’s to save his Red Bull seat for 2024.