Being number two isn’t easy. Just ask Gary Barlow, Graham Taylor or Patrick Star. One man who has also struggled with his subsidiary role is Sergio Perez. Checo is often painted as the frustrated number two who simply cannot abide his teammate and current world champion Max Verstappen.
It’s a difficult position for him to be in. Not only is Verstappen the quickest driver on the track by a country mile, but given he spent the 2023 season in one of the greatest cars we have ever seen, comparisons between the two were obviously going to hit an all-time high. As the Dutchman won a ridiculous 19 races out of 22, breaking almost every single F1 record along the way, Perez was forced to play second fiddle, failing to win a race after Azerbaijan in round four.
Criticism mounted when Checo failed to finish in second place in any of the last eight races of the season. Given the superiority of the Red Bull across the year, this will have raised concerns for Christian Horner, who has not been shy in shuffling the pack in a bid to find Verstappen’s perfect partner.
Pierre Gasly was dropped halfway through the 2019 season to make room for top rookie Alex Albon, but he lasted little more than one full year before being ditched at the end of 2020. F1 is a brutal world, but the most unforgiving seat might just bet the one to the right-hand side of the three-time world champion.
“Truthfully, for me especially, the biggest thing to get used to was everything around it,” former Red Bull driver Albon recently explained to F1. “Once you’re in that top team, the spotlight gets put on you far, far more than what it was like at Toro Rosso.
“The first race that I went to, it was in Belgium, and the attention around this whole seat swap was massive and every mistake, everything you do, gets criticised. It’s quite a hot seat – the seat that I was in, it’s been moved around a fair bit – so that was one of the main things.”
The fact that Perez has remained in the seat since 2021 shouldn’t be overlooked as an achievement. He’s vastly experienced, a top racer, and more importantly his relationship with Verstappen isn’t as fractions as most would wish to make out. It’s a great story to have an unhappy number two fighting with Verstappen, but that simply isn’t the case the majority of the time.
Perez wants to win a world title before his career is up, and he believes the best chance for him to do that will come at Red Bull. "We didn't discuss about that [supporting role],” he confirmed after signing the contract that will see him race for Red Bull in 2024. “There's nothing in my contract that says that I need to finish second or something like that, so it was not a topic in the contract at all."
Ultimately, Perez did finish second in the Drivers’ Championship. He should have done it more comfortably given the car he was in, but for Horner he represents the perfect foil for Verstappen in his quest to win four in a row. Even under pressure from the returning Daniel Ricciardo in the partner AlphaTauri stable, Checo was able to get the job done and secure second place by a margin of 51 points.
Horner must be careful what he wishes for in some senses. He doesn’t want an egotistical battle to develop between his drivers and detract from the collective goal, as we have seen with Lewis Hamilton throughout his career with various teammates at Mercedes. Let’s not forget that Checo was absolutely pivotal to Verstappen winning his first world championship, holding up Hamilton in Abu Dhabi. But that is exactly what Perez wants to do, with his aim in 2024 being to overhaul his Dutch teammate.
Perez's 290-point deficit to Verstappen in the final standings is the biggest margin in F1 history between first and second place. But he’s not willing to just sit back and watch on as his Dutch teammate takes chequered flag after chequered flag.
"That's the main target [to win the championship]. I already finished second and my main interest is to do one better. I'm aware of the challenge it is. Next year, we have a new opportunity. To be honest, I felt like I was not totally at one with this year's car.”
Red Bull will hope that Perez improves, given that we are unlikely to see the same vast gap in terms of car performance between them, Ferrari, Mercedes and even an improving McLaren team in 2024. If the Mexican slips up this time around or doesn’t perform at his best, there is no guarantee that second place will be as secure as it once was.
There's a feeling that this season may well be Checo’s last with Red Bull, unless he does something truly remarkable. He will probably either have to win the Drivers’ Championship, or push Verstappen all the way in order to hold onto his seat. He’s now 33, and even though his dad believes he can go on for another decade, that is unlikely to materialise. However, what may come to a fitting end is the relationship between the two elite drivers. Hopefully, whenever his time at Red Bull ends, Checo will get the send off he truly deserves.
“I like that my son competes with the best driver in the world,” Perez’s father explained. “And the best driver in the world right now is Max Verstappen. This is the best relationship with a teammate that Checo has ever had in his Formula 1 career. And I like that."
One of the sport’s most underrated drivers, and characters, in recent years is targeting big things in 2024. Anything less could see him lose the seat he has done so well to cling on to.