What a difference two weeks makes.
After the Spanish Grand Prix, I’d have expected Sergio Perez to be demoralized by Red Bull Racing’s uneven use of team orders to secure his teammate Max Verstappen the race win and championship points lead. Instead, Perez put his head down and full-on out-performed his Formula 1 world champion teammate in every session of the weekend for the first time since joining Red Bull at the start of 2021.
And this time, when misfortune struck Ferrari, it was Perez able to capitalize. By winning his first Grand Prix of 2022 and the third of his career, he not only became the winningest Mexican driver in the history of the World Championship, but moved within 15 points of the top spot in the standings. Could Perez be a dark horse for the championship?
To make a long story short, no. Two weeks ago I staked my claim that the championship matters too much to Red Bull and Ferrari to risk a battle between teammates. Perez proved in the late stages of the Spanish Grand Prix that he is willing to play the team game when asked, and Red Bull paid him back in Monaco by proving they’re not going to throw him under the bus without a good reason.
The job of a number-two driver is to advantage the number one, yes, but equally important is the ability to pick up the slack when number one fails to finish or has an off weekend. That’s why Red Bull hired Perez, and that’s what he just did in Monaco. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he won the most prestigious trophy in Grand Prix racing along the way.
What Perez has shown, in Spain, Monaco and the first stint of Saudi Arabia, is that he’s more comfortable in the RB18 than he was in last year’s car. Crucially, he has been handily outperforming Ferrari’s second driver, Carlos Sainz. Having a second driver running closer to Verstappen and in position to win the odd race will give Red Bull a huge advantage over Ferrari in the constructors championship, as well as allowing Perez to take more points off of Charles Leclerc, benefitting him, Verstappen and Red Bull. The team doesn’t expect Perez to contend for the championship, nor will they allow him to, but more race wins in 2022 are definitely on the table.
Speaking of odd races and Sergio Perez, this weekend the Formula 1 circus returns to the site of his previous Grand Prix victory, the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan. With the exception of a dull inaugural event in 2016, the terrifyingly fast and hilariously narrow street circuit on the shores of the Caspian Sea has hosted some of the most unpredictable Grands Prix in recent memory. A teenage Lance Stroll put a Williams on the podium in 2017, while tire failures cost both Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen race wins in 2018 and 2021, respectively. 2018 also gave us a handy scapegoat for any problem life could throw at us: former Sauber driver and newly-minted Indianapolis 500 champion Marcus Ericsson.
It almost isn’t worth predicting an Azerbaijan result, because everything from double punctures to loose headrests to intentional collisions between the championship front-runners under the Safety Car can change up the final running order, so my only prediction for the week is this: After six issue-free years, this will be the first time that someone crashes during a race in the narrow castle section of turns 8, 9 and 10.
Don’t even hold me to this, as I’ve expected a castle section mishap since the inaugural European Grand Prix in 2016, and every year F1’s drivers have proven me wrong. You just can’t predict Baku.
Formula 1’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix airs this Sunday (June 12) at 7 a.m. ET on ESPN.
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