In F1, nothing, absolutely nothing is set in stone. Not even three-years signed contracts, and Sergio Perez, the Racing Point’s departing driver is experiencing it in the most acute way.
The Mexican’s misfortune started in May 2020, after the shocking announcement of Sebastian Vettel’s contract not being extended by Ferrari for the 2021 season onwards.
Vettel said at the time that the team and himself have realised that there was no longer a common desire to stay together, and that he will take the time to reflect on what really matters. He made sure however to clarify that “there was never an offer on the table” from Ferrari, contrary to what Mattia Binotto, the team principal has left everyone - he himself included - to believe.
With McLaren, Renault and Mercedes sealing their vacant seats and confirming their drivers’ line-up for the 2021 season, the entire industry looked with much concern, for any viable option left to see the 4-times world champion to continue racing in F1. Vettel himself having clearly stated that he wouldn’t want to race for an uncompetitive team, all indications pointed towards Racing Point. The team is indeed building itself up with an ambitious program, backed by the financial support of its owner Lawrence Stroll, and the expertise of the Aston Martin Motorsport family.
On paper, that looked pretty much straight forward. Vettel could very much race for Aston Martin in 2021. But, there was one bone of contention still remaining: both Racing Point’s drivers had a multi-years contract in force till 2022.
Weighing up the line-up of the Silvertone-based team, one could notice that Lance Stroll is the son’s team owner. I personally wouldn’t dare to question his merits behind a wheel, but it would be insincere of me to pretend his seat was genuinely at stake. Sergio Perez was obviously, the driver at risk, were Vettel to join the team. And history is just proving it right. Speculations around Checo’s seat intensified when McLaren signed Ricciardo, and Renault, Fernando Alonso. The state of the relationship between the Scuderia and the german champion implied there were slim chances to see him join a Ferrari-bounded stable like Alfa Romeo or Haas. And both Red Bull and Mercedes made crystal clear that they had every intention to keep their current combos. So realistically for Vettel, it had to be Racing Point.
As the time went, Vettel admitted having “loose talks” with Racing Point over a seat, but always remained evasive and insisted that any decision would not be rushed. The fact that Vettel was negotiating with Racing Point, soon-to-be rebranded Aston Martin led to inevitable questions about Perez’ future. After all, he had a signed contract until 2022, knew the team inside and out for having been there from 2014 to date, was a solid performer, and played a crucial role in saving the team by triggering administration proceedings for Force India in 2018, which led to Racing Point’s takeover.
The Mexican was nonetheless aware of Vettel's threat over his seat, and conceded that it was “obvious” he would be the one to leave were Vettel to arrive. However, the team seemed to reassure him. He said ahead of the Spanish GP : “What I've heard from the team is that we all want to keep going, to continue. So I believe it's just a matter of time before those rumours can go away.” In addition, when asked about the confirmation of the team’s line-up, Otmar Szafnauer responded: “We already did that two years ago. There is nothing more to confirm.” He was then asked: “So Vettel is out?” To which he responded “He was never inside”. And yet…
As happy as one can be to see Vettel continue racing from 2021 and beyond, it is difficult not to feel for Perez. He did everything right, but I guess the best is the enemy of the good. Ultimately, Perez’ consistent results, loyalty to the team, sponsorships have been outweighed by the opportunity to have a four-times world champion.
Checo announced his demotion on his social media platforms, saying that “It hurts a bit” and that he “didn’t have a plan B”. Considering Perez’ options, one can notice the drivers market is still open.
As some teams haven’t confirmed their line-up yet, it is expected that Perez’ speed and experience along with the benefits from his sponsors would come in handy. It would probably come at the expense of another driver though. But those are the rules of this very ruthless F1 game. May the best men get the seats.