Sergio Perez‘s win at the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was not exactly flamboyant but it’s performances like his on Sunday which will see him put up a genuine title fight against Max Verstappen.
Christian Horner told Verstappen on the radio that Perez got fortunate with the safety car, but the Mexican was about to make an overtake attempt and looked faster than his teammate.
That has never happened before in the 47 previous races the pair have been driving together for, so it was a key moment and told us, Perez can beat Verstappen on merit.
Perez needed fortune in the past to win
Looking back at Perez‘s four wins for Red Bull before Baku, none of the victories were on pure, outright pace directly against Verstappen across a race weekend.
At the 2021 Azerbaijan GP, Verstappen was set to win before his left-rear tyre failed, then Perez capitalised on an error from Lewis Hamilton on the standing start restart.
Monaco 2022 has proven to be controversial as Perez‘s spin at the end of Q3 stopped everyone from improving their lap times.
In the race, Ferrari made a strategy mistake with Charles Leclerc, but you still have to give credit to Perez for being there, even if it may have been unsportsmanlike on the Saturday.
The 2022 Singapore GP saw Verstappen start in eighth after Red Bull made a wrong call in Q3 when the Dutchman almost certainly would have taken pole position. Again, Perez drove a superb race to beat Leclerc in rainy conditions.
Finally, Saudi Arabia was a similar story with Verstappen qualifying in 15th due to a drivetrain failure and Perez dominating the race.
In that Grand Prix in Jeddah though, he was able to respond to Verstappen‘s mid-race charge and on Sunday in Baku, he did so again.
How Perez beat Verstappen on merit
In the sprint race on Saturday, Perez started ahead of Verstappen and overtook Leclerc to take the eight championship points.
Verstappen had a hole in his left sidepod, so it was hard to tell how much pace Red Bull actually had and how impressive Perez‘s drive was.
On Sunday, in the Grand Prix, Perez appeared to have more pace than his teammate as the first stint progressed.
Whether this was down to setup, car balance or something else, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that Perez was going to at least go for an overtake before Verstappen pitted.
Red Bull should have seen a virtual safety car or safety car coming, given Nyck de Vries was going nowhere with a bent front-left wishbone and it looked like they wanted to prevent an on-track battle between their drivers.
You only have to go back to 2018 when Daniel Ricciardo collided with Verstappen after a titanic battle that ended in tears, surely that was in the team’s mind.
Nevertheless, Perez benefited from the safety car, though probably would have been ahead anyway, and didn’t let his teammate within DRS range for the remaining 37 laps.
On a track where you can follow and definitely get close if you have a pace advantage, that was impressive.
It may not have looked much on the television, but both drivers were going for it – up against the walls, using all the tyre they had and taking some risks as they traded fastest lap times.
Unlike Jeddah, where Verstappen was down the order, Perez won a proper race-long grudge match and don’t be fooled about him not making an on-track overtake because he had the speed anyway before the first pit stop.
Can Perez win the champoinship?
In reality, it will take a Nico Rosberg 2016-esque title-winning season for Perez to become world champion.
Hamilton had some terrible starts and worse reliability that proved costly that year, but Rosberg also did enough to capitalise on the misfortune.
Perez will need some luck to beat Verstappen over a season, however, he has now proved, in a head-to-head fight, he can win.
One DNF for Verstappen and it could take four race wins for the defending champion to recover the lost points, should he lead a Red Bull one-two in each Grand Prix.
That’s the major difference in a title fight when one car is dominant – it’s harder to recover lost ground.
“We are in the fight guys” was the message from Perez to his side of the garage and he’s absolutely right because that Baku win could be a key moment in F1 2023.