Why Perez was the right choice for Red Bull

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Based on the results of the 2020 season, it’s hard to argue with Red Bull’s decision to pick Sergio Perez over Alex Albon for 2021.

In a slower car, Perez finished the year 20 points clear of Albon, won a race against the odds in Bahrain and scored points at every grand prix he entered, apart from the two in which his Mercedes engine failed.

That sort of consistency is exactly what Albon was lacking all year and could be the difference between the team taking the fight to Mercedes in the constructors’ title next year and not.

On paper, the argument for taking Perez over Albon is clear.

What went wrong for Albon?

Albon’s results simply weren’t good enough in 2020 and, ultimately, it boiled down to a lack of raw performance. He was beaten in qualifying by teammate Max Verstappen at every round this year and the average gap between the two was a massive 0.493s.

Red Bull hoped Albon would regularly get within 0.3s of Verstappen in qualifying and wanted the Thai driver to become a factor in its battles with Mercedes at the front of the field. By having two cars in the running for podium places, it would have helped force Mercedes’ hand on tyre strategy and potentially result in a mistake from the world champions.

But all too often Albon was stuck in the midfield, leaving Verstappen to fight two faster cars with no wingman and limited strategic options to outfox Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

But based on his junior career, his heroics in a Toro Rosso early in 2019 and his performance at Red Bull after he switched teams midway through last year, Albon should not have been as slow as he was in 2020, so what went wrong?

The issue appears have its roots in a Red Bull car that is very difficult to drive on the limit. In trying to close the gap to Mercedes at the front of the grid, Red Bull produced a car that was prone to snaps of oversteer when pushed to the limit.

Reacting to that oversteer was often the difference between a front-row grid position and a car in the barriers, and after a number of mistakes and near misses, Albon’s confidence was dented.

We saw a very similar pattern of results when Pierre Gasly partnered Verstappen last year, leading to Red Bull’s decision to demote the Frenchman and promote Albon at the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix.

Talking about the difference between Verstappen and his teammates earlier this year, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told ESPN earlier this year: “I would liken it to Michael Schumacher when he drove the Benetton in the mid-90s and there were not many teammates who could drive the car in the manner and fashion that Michael was able to.

“I think that Max is able to do the same with this car.

“Some of the car’s nuances, he can cope with and they don’t unsettle him. Whereas, whether it was Pierre or Daniel [Ricciardo] on occasions and certainly Alex, it has an effect.

“So that’s what we are focused on as a team, trying to tidy up and reduce the car’s sensitivity in that area.”

The team appeared to make a breakthrough with a more stable aerodynamic package towards the end of the year, but it was too little too late for Albon. At the final race of the season, Albon qualified fifth and finished fourth — an improvement on his season average — but in stark contrast Verstappen took pole position and an easy win.

It was a step forward for Albon, but it still wasn’t convincing enough to rescue his position at the team.

Will Perez take the fight to Verstappen?

By signing Perez, Red Bull will introduce a trusted barometer of performance to its driver line-up. The Mexican may not be on the same level as Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton, but he has proven this year that he can win a race given the opportunity and, after finishing fourth in the drivers’ standings, is among the best drivers in the midfield.

If Perez performs on a similar to Albon next year it will confirm the team’s theory about how difficult the car is to drive (and just how good Verstappen is), but if he joins Verstappen at the front of the grid it will add weight to suspicions that Albon wasn’t up to the job.

It won’t be a fair comparison as Red Bull will no doubt improve the car over the winter, but the nature of teammate comparisons is rarely perfect and Red Bull will have another batch of data from a very experienced driver to help understand the car’s issues.

Albon will remain as a reserve driver under a Red Bull contract, meaning he will be available as a solid substitute for either Red Bull or junior team AlphaTauri should they need one. What’s more, if any of the four race drivers (Verstappen and Perez at Red Bull and Gasly and rookie signing Yuki Tsunoda at AlphaTauri) underperform, he can slot straight in as a perfectly prepared replacement.

For Perez, it is the opportunity he always wanted and the opportunity he thoroughly deserved. From his arrival in F1 in 2011, it has been clear he was a talented driver but he has never had a car to match his talent.

As a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy in his junior career, it looked like he was destined to race in red, but when McLaren chose him as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement in 2013 another path opened up. Unfortunately for Perez, the 2013 season marked the start of a politically volatile time at McLaren that led to a long and steady decline for the team, and through no fault of his own, he was replaced by Kevin Magnussen for 2014.

Perez then joined Force India (which became Racing Point in 2019), where he remained as a solid presence in the midfield. He scored seven podiums with the team – including his win at the Sakhir Grand Prix earlier this month – but he will leave just as Racing Point (which will become Aston Martin next year) hits its stride with much-needed investment from Lawrence Stroll.

However, Red Bull represents a trade up for Perez and his first opportunity to show what he can do in a top car against a top teammate. At 30 years old he still has time on his side and if he can truly take the fight to Verstappen, his career may only just be getting started.

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