Sergio Perez’s underwhelming result in Canadian Grand Prix qualifying struck a further blow to his already dwindling chances of fighting Max Verstappen for the 2023 Formula 1 world championship, but more concerning is a run of recent underperformance that is beginning to look worryingly like a pattern rather than an anomaly.
Since opportunistically grabbing pole position for May’s Miami GP, Perez has since failed to make Q3 for three consecutive races. Having put himself only six points adrift of Verstappen in the standings after winning the race prior to that Miami pole (in Baku), Perez has seen that gap balloon to 53 points – and it’s likely to extend further in Montreal, given Verstappen starts from a commanding pole (his third in a row) while Perez once again has to embark on a recovery mission from a lowly mid-grid starting position.
Perez’s performance in Canada qualifying was seriously below par. While Verstappen was at or near the top of the timesheet throughout the three segments of qualifying, in whatever weather condition and on both intermediate and slick tyres, Perez laboured. He was ninth in Q1 – absolutely fine given the minimum requirement to be inside the top 15 only – but 1.3 seconds shy of Verstappen’s benchmark in the same car.
In Q2, a wet/drying/wetter-again miss-mash of a session, Perez was in and out of the pits several times, swapping from inters to slicks and back to inters again, locking brakes into the final chicane repeatedly, always behind the performance curve, never on it or ahead of it. And he ended up a massive 2.2s off Verstappen’s pace.
After the session, Perez pretty much dismissed this disappointing outcome by blaming timing. He said he was “half a lap too late” switching to the slick, which placed him in a poor track position from which he simply couldn’t recover.
The almost-six tenths he needed to progress to Q3 at Lewis Hamilton’s expense, Perez said was “all down to the track”.
Yet Perez was eight tenths slower than Verstappen on their respective ‘banker’ laps on intermediates at the start of Q2, then failed to find any time on slicks – despite pitting at a similar time to his team-mate, who went on to use his own slicks to post the second-fastest time of that segment.
Had Perez exhibited the sort of self-assurance his Red Bull predecessor Alex Albon showed by committing to slicks from the get-go and topping the times in his low-downforce Williams, perhaps this story would have taken a more positive turn for Perez.
Verstappen gained pretty much another second on slicks before the track conditions worsened again. The McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri – which are very good at firing their tyres up – also managed to find significant time on the slicks. Fernando Alonso was fifth in Q2 using inters.
Perez seemed unsure what to do. He appeared to abandon his dry tyres too quickly, opting to go back onto inters and then not making much use of those either. Even with a slightly messy session, and some slightly mis-timed calls, that Red Bull should have been plenty quick enough to progress. Just look at what Verstappen did with it.
When the pressure was really on, Perez couldn’t rise to the challenge. Whereas you sense that if roles were reversed and Verstappen was under the cosh to escape Q2, he would have made the magic happen – like he did with that incredible last-gasp sector three to nab pole from Alonso in Monaco.
Perez’s qualifying errors have all been different – the mysterious Melbourne brake-locking episode for which the team could find no obvious technical excuse; the Monaco Q1 crash (obvious driver error); the Barcelona Q2 exit – down to Perez trying too hard to drive RB19 like Verstappen does and falling short; and now this mess of a performance in mixed weather in Canada.
Perez might take solace from the fact each underperformance is different, but that’s also now 50% of this season’s eight qualifying sessions where he’s massively under-delivered in what is very clearly F1’s best car.
“Definitely not feeling great, not going through a great moment,” he admitted to reporters after the session. “But we’ve come back before and tomorrow it’s a new opportunity to hopefully get back into very strong points.”
Christian Horner spoke after Perez’s Spanish GP recovery drive to fourth about that increasing points gap to Verstappen helping to remove pressure from Perez’s shoulders, and in turn that hopefully helping him rediscover his best form. Horner was at it again in Canada, telling Sky Sports F1 that Perez should “stop thinking about the championship and just drive”.
“If he just frees his shoulders up a bit,” Horner added, “it will just come to him more naturally.”
But if anything Perez seems to be going in the opposite direction at present. His shoulders are tightening and he is choking in those key moments. He seems to be encountering some kind of mental block, where increasingly the decisions he is making in those crucial qualifying moments are the wrong ones – and he’s paying a hefty price for them.
Meanwhile, his world champion team-mate is going from strength to strength – and that will surely only heap more pressure on Perez to somehow find a way out of what increasingly looks like a very worrying slump.