Has Perez blown his chance to topple Verstappen?
By Ian Parkes
Tuesday 9th May, 2023 - 3:51pm
The Miami Grand Prix was Sergio Perez’s moment to truly step out of Max Verstappen’s shadow.
Now we have to wonder whether he will get another chance, not just this season but for the remainder of his Red Bull contract that runs to the end of next year.
Perez went into the race at the Miami International Autodrome with momentum on his side.
The Mexican driver was a worthy victor of both the sprint and grand prix in Azerbaijan just a week previously, notably keeping Verstappen at arm’s length during the latter to win his second race this season, and fifth for Red Bull overall.
Remarkably, all five of those successes have been on street circuits, leading team principal Christian Horner to remark that “now he just needs to do it at a normal track”.
The comment was made with a chuckle, but you sensed there was also an underlying tone of seriousness.
You could argue the temporary 5.412km track that winds its way around the Hard Rock Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins American football team, was up Perez’s street, so to speak, given its nature.
Although off the pace in Friday practice, qualifying fell into Perez’s lap.
Remarkably, Verstappen made a mistake on his first run in Q3. Perez was near-perfect.
So when Charles Leclerc crashed into a barrier that red-flagged the session, Verstappen was left without a time to his name and ninth on the grid, whilst Perez was on pole position as there was not an opportunity to complete a second run.
On a silver platter, Perez was handed the opportunity to win back-to-back races, which in turn would allow him to also lead the championship for the first time in his 13-season career, no matter Verstappen’s result.
If Perez wanted everyone to believe he truly has what it takes to challenge Verstappen for the title, this was it.
Verstappen delivers statement performance
Verstappen, frustrated by his performance in Baku, and even more by what transpired in qualifying in Miami, had other ideas.
What followed for 57 laps was a statement drive that will have left Perez and his supporters questioning how a victory that was his for the taking somehow slipped through his fingers.
The 33-year-old did all that was required of him at the start, making a clean getaway off the line and leaving the potential threat of second-on-the-grid Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin trailing.
From there, Perez should have driven away into the Miami sunset, particularly after choosing the optimal strategy of starting on the medium-compound Pirelli tyres before then switching to the hard.
In contrast, Verstappen went against the data and opted for a hard-medium plan.
The first stint was sublime and belied the fact he was on what was theoretically the slower rubber. He made it look as if that was far from the case.
After 14 laps, Verstappen had scythed his way through to second, and remarkably found himself just 3.7s behind Perez who said his opening stint was “really poor, worse than expected”, due to the medium tyres being “fragile”, forcing him to protect them.
At that stage, Perez declared that he “knew the race was looking difficult”. So it proved.
When he pitted after 20 laps, allowing Verstappen to take the lead, on fresher tyres he should have closed considerably but he was unable to apply the pressure required that would have made the race after Verstappen’s stop a cat-and-mouse chase to the line.
Verstappen “absolutely outstanding”
On lap 35, after being told he could lean on his tyres by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase, Verstappen even had the audacity to set the fastest lap of the race at that point.
Eventually, 12 laps from the finish, Verstappen pitted to take on his medium tyres, emerging just 1.5s behind Perez.
Less than two laps later, he passed Perez with ease and cantered to the chequered flag for the 38th time in his Red Bull career, equalling Sebastian Vettel’s team record.
Horner described Verstappen’s drive as “absolutely outstanding”, particularly in the middle stint after Perez’s stop and prior to the one from the Dutch driver where he put in lap after lap in “a race against the stopwatch”.
Perez is convinced there will be “many, many more good moments … coming ahead”, and you sense there will be other race wins. Monaco is an obvious example.
But this was one of those days when Verstappen underlined just why he is a two-time F1 champion, and who will take some stopping from making it three in a row.
Conversely, Perez had his opportunity and did not seize it, leaving him to lick wounds that may now take some time to heal, and ponder the ultimate question as to whether he truly has what it takes to beat Verstappen over a season.
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