A tricky afternoon in the Brazilian Grand Prix soon turned into a headache for Red Bull F1 boss Christian Horner after a rather public disagreement between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
Verstappen had been waved through by the slow, medium-shod Perez to see if he could attack Charles Leclerc, who was two cars in front in P4, with the small matter of Fernando Alonso immediately ahead.
Red Bull was hoping that Verstappen could pass Leclerc and take points away from the Monegasque, who is locked in a fight for P2 in the Drivers’ Championship with Perez.
Perez was powerless to make any progress of his own, with the Mexican losing buckets of time compared to those ahead of Softs in the closing stages at Interlagos.
As is the norm in cases like this, Perez was told that Verstappen would let him back through for position if he did not pass Leclerc, which would have banked the Mexican an extra two points for a potential sixth place as opposed to the seventh place he occupied.
However, Verstappen flat-out refused the direct order and informed the team that he had “his reasons” – believed to stem from Monaco qualifying, where the Dutchman reportedly felt Perez crashed on purpose in Q3 to deny him a shot at Pole Position and possibly the race win.
Perez retorted over the radio that Verstappen “showed who he really is” with the refusal and later claimed that Verstappen’s two World Championship titles were “down to me”.
That is quite a strong claim for him to make, but does the evidence stack up against it?
Verstappen secured his 2021 title in dramatic circumstances following a controversial Safety Car restart in the season-finale in Abu Dhabi, mugging Lewis Hamilton on the final lap restart after only some cars were allowed to unlap themselves.
His second crown has been secured in one of the most dominant seasons by a driver in the history of F1.
As of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Verstappen has 14 wins and 429 points, which are both all-time F1 season records.
For comparison, Perez has two wins this year and 290 points, seven of which are second places, five of these following his team leader home.
Despite harboring ambitions of beating Verstappen to the championship, Perez was signed as a number two, and has fulfilled that job description excellently.
His job is to follow home the number one driver, take wins when something happens to Verstappen and be used as a tool to help protect his teammate from rivals.
Although Verstappen won a season high 11 races in 2021, it is arguable that his title would not have been possible without Perez.
Case for Perez
In 2021, some of Perez’s efforts in defending from Hamilton were exemplary, with his work in Abu Dhabi pivotal in costing Hamilton nearly 10 crucial seconds of race time – but his body of work had more shining examples.
In Azerbaijan, Perez kept Hamilton’s Mercedes behind him for the entire race, with the British driver eventually accepting defeat and was set to settle for P3 before Verstappen’s tire failure.
This prompted a red flag and two-lap shootout, where Hamilton memorably locked up and ran wide at Turn 1 after hitting a wrong button.
Next time out in France, Perez was within Hamilton’s pit-stop window and so Mercedes elected to go for a one-stop strategy.
Promptly, Red Bull switched Verstappen to a second, and on the penultimate lap it was an easy overtake for the #33 – and a 14-point swing in the standings based on that race alone.
Perez was also able to nab a couple of fastest laps away from Hamilton, costing him vital bonus points, with his Turkish GP efforts in particular being a fine display of defensive driving.
Through the twisty final sector, the Red Bull slithered up the inside as Hamilton tried to overtake, before lunging the #44 at Turn 1 to maintain position.
This was as close as Hamilton got to passing Perez, as he made a late pitstop.
It was marginal whether he could have run to the end on the Intermediate tires, but taking extra life out of them in that battle was exactly what Perez needed to do to disrupt Hamilton.
Verstappen won 11 races to Perez’s one and beat him by 205.5 points in the standings, but a little help in a fight as white hot as the battle with Hamilton went a long way.
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2022 was no contest
If Perez feels like he helped Verstappen win one title, then he cannot have any logic for the argument that he has done the same this season.
Verstappen has simply crushed the field and, with Mercedes and Ferrari imploding for various (self-inflicted) reasons, the title race has effectively been over since the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in June when Charles Leclerc retired for the second time with an engine failure.
Absolutely, Perez moved out of the way in Spain and in Baku to allow Verstappen through to take eventual wins, but to claim in any way that these were the reasons alone that Verstappen added a new star to his helmet is severely wide of the mark.
He might also point to Japan where his pressure on Leclerc caused a mistake from the Ferrari man at the chicane on the final lap, earning him a five-second time penalty for gaining an advantage by cutting the track.
This dropped Leclerc to third, promoted Perez to P2 and, as full points were awarded at Suzuka, handed Verstappen that second title in unusual circumstances, with Perez’s efforts effectively securing the title for his teammate – and on Honda’s home track to boot.
Perez felt rightly aggrieved that Verstappen ignored the direct team order in Sao Paulo, but despite implying he wouldn’t help his teammate secure P2, Verstappen quickly changed his tune post-race and said he would in Abu Dhabi.
Perhaps now scores are settled after that perceived Monaco wrongdoing, but Perez can count himself unlucky that he is up against one of the most ruthless, determined and selfish (in a good way) drivers in F1 history.
Dabbling in the dark arts is something all the greats – including Hamilton (see Nico Rosberg in 2015) – have indulged in throughout the years.
In his mind, Verstappen owes Perez absolutely nothing as he goes about tearing up the record books.
Perez would do well to remember that. He is the number two driver and sometimes will get the rough end of the stick even when he feels he has the moral high ground.
He is not racing in the midfield anymore – this is the sharp end of elite sport, where the best of the best can sometimes act utterly ruthless and not think any more of it after the race.
You don’t get hand-me-downs at this level of sport. Even if Perez was right in that he did play a crucial role in assisting (and no more) Verstappen’s surge to the 2021 title and unlocking the machine within the #1 that has steamrolled all before in ’22.