POLE POSITION: Max Verstappen must brace for a hostile reception in Sergio Perez’s backyard… as the Mexican goes into his home race with his position at Red Bull under scrutiny
- Max Verstappen was heckled by Sergio Perez fans at the United States GP
- The Dutchman can expect to receive a hostile reception in Mexico City
- Perez’s future at Red Bull is under scrutiny after struggling against Verstappen
Max Verstappen was given a foretaste of the hostile reception he can expect in Mexico City this weekend courtesy of the loud booing that marked his victory in Austin last Sunday.
The hecklers were fans of his Red Bull team-mate, Sergio Perez. ‘Checo, Checo,’ they chorused in support of their man.
On arrival in Mexico, Verstappen can hardly have failed to spot giant billboards and murals carrying Perez’s fizzog.
The endorsement king of these parts, ‘Checo’ stars in adverts urging his compatriots to buy this tequila or that watch. He is probably the most famous sportsman in the country, and the excitable masses at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez will make clear their affection for him.
As for Verstappen, I can reveal that he has been withdrawn by Formula One bosses from the fans’ forum — an on-stage event at the circuit — to spare him jeering, or, to be frank, possibly worse intimidation.
Max Verstappen was jeered by Sergio Perez fans at the United States Grand Prix and can expect to receive a hostile reception in front of his team-mate’s home support in Mexico
Perez and Verstappen have a ‘cordial’ relationship though there have been bumps in the road
The pair have been involved in a number of sponsorship commitments this week
Mexico City, along with Sao Paulo when there is a Brazilian driver in contention, is one of the most fervid of all venues. So both Red Bull drivers will be protected by bodyguards. A police escort will accompany them and other teams in and out.
The paddock here is lively and fun but it is also too crowded, and a driver’s short walk from the team hospitality area to the garage is a gangplank of its own. The horn-honking roads that lead to the circuit’s gates heighten the febrile atmosphere.
Perez comes to his big race with his position under scrutiny. His chief task over the remaining four rounds is to finish second in the drivers’ standings. If not, serious questions will be asked, regardless of the one year remaining on his contract.
His employment prospects were boosted in Austin through Lewis Hamilton’s disqualification for a technical infringement. It leaves Perez 39 points clear of the Briton.
Regardless of the figures, there was never the remotest chance of Red Bull dropping him prior to this weekend for all the reasons of home support and commercial imperatives detailed above. Daniel Ricciardo, in the AlphaTauri, is a mooted possible replacement, but is he making his case emphatically enough? Not especially, his cause not smoothed by his recent broken wrist.
Relations between Verstappen and Perez are said to be ‘cordial’, and they certainly seem to rub along well enough when sponsor commitments throw them together.
With Verstappen having wrapped up the title, any putative rancour between Max’s camp and Perez has dissipated. Verstappen can afford to be relaxed towards his garage-mate, content in his own No1 status within the team. He has 15 wins to Perez’s two, and is 226 points richer, which puts him on a different planet.
The purple patch in their partnership came in Abu Dhabi in 2021, when Perez held off Hamilton manfully to let Verstappen climb back into the race and win his first title. ‘Checo drove brilliantly today,’ the new champion told me as he knocked back celebratory G&Ts on his party boat.
There have been some bumps along the way since then — all of which demonstrate that Red Bull are, to all intents and purposes, Verstappen’s team, as well they might be given his extravagant talent.
Verstappen has dominated Perez on his way to winning a third consecutive world title
Perez is a long way down and is in a fight with Lewis Hamilton for second in the championship
The pair’s first notable flashpoint occurred in Spain last year when Perez was ordered to let Verstappen through for the win. ‘Very unfair,’ complained the compliant Perez, who ended up as the hind legs in a Red Bull one-two.
In Brazil, in the penultimate race of the season, Verstappen refused to switch places with Perez, from sixth to seventh, a move which would have helped his partner in his ultimately unavailing attempt to secure runners-up spot in the drivers’ standings ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
‘I told you already, guys – don’t ask again,’ said Verstappen. ‘Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons and I stand by them.’ This was interpreted as a reference to Perez pranging in qualifying in Monaco and thus denying Verstappen a shot at improving on his time. The Dutchman started fourth, a row behind Perez.
Nor did Verstappen back up Leclerc in the final round in Abu Dhabi when Perez was running third. Leclerc ended up three points in front of the Mexican.
Perez (left) is arguably the most popular sportsperson in his home country of Mexico
Then there was Saudi Arabia this year when Verstappen, defying instructions, banged in the fastest lap. The rest of 2023 turned out to be one-sided history.
Yet there was to be further thread to the rivalry sewn by Red Bull’s motorsport adviser Helmut Marko in remarks last month. The 80-year-old said of Perez: ‘He is South American and is just not as completely focused in his head as Max or Sebastian (Vettel).’
Actually, Mexico is in North America (oops). Perez accepted Dr Marko’s subsequent apology, but the slight had already registered loudly in the minds of Checo’s partisans, and forms part of the madness and machismo of the place.
Hamilton’s Austin upturn merely a false dawn
I would love to supplement the hoopla that accompanied Lewis Hamilton’s close battle with Max Verstappen in Austin. It was a precursor to a genuine challenge next season, some suggested.
Let’s see. It may be so, and, heavens, the sport desperately needs it.
But given Hamilton’s car was advantaged by running too close to the ground — for which he was disqualified after finishing second — can we be sure that a corner has been turned?
This was, effectively, a steroid-enhanced performance, even if, as is near-universally accepted, it was not by duplicitous design but as a result of the sprint format permitting only one free practice session to assess ride heights rather than the usual three.
We await further proof of green shoots.
Hamilton pushed Verstappen in Austin but was ultimately disqualified after finishing second
F1 owners are taking liberty
FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem hit back, in an interview carried by Mail Sport this week, at the notion that the sport’s owners, Liberty Media, can have it all their own way.
I asked him if he thought Liberty, who have expanded the calendar to button-popping proportions, are greedy.
‘Define greedy,’ he responded, while committing himself to fight for the sporting and safety interests of Formula One.
‘If they make money at the expense of what might be right for the sport,’ I ventured, turning agent provocateur.
‘OK,’ said Ben Sulayem. ‘If they do that, then they are greedy.’
As the old school essay assignment instructed: ‘Discuss.’
Source: Read Full Article