Why Perez's Star Is In The Making
Sky Sports F1's Commentary Expert Mark Hughes explains why Sergio Perez's star was able to shine in the Sauber when the rain fell in Malaysia...
Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:19am
Sergio Perez underlined in red on Sunday why he is being increasingly mentioned as Felipe Massa's likely replacement at Ferrari.
Massa's unease can easily be imagined as he alighted from his car in Malaysia having finished 15th - to be told that in an identical car his team-mate had won the race, but worse than that, Ferrari Academy driver Perez had finished second in the Sauber.
A crucial key to Perez's remarkable performance was his call to change from inters to wets at the end of the opening lap. As the others belatedly followed that call, it enabled him to rise relatively effortlessly up to third place, which is where he began the restarted race from after the red flag-inducing storm had passed.
Second position was gifted him by Lewis Hamilton's pit-lane delay as everyone almost immediately pitted to go back onto inters. Staying out a lap later than most, Perez missed the worst of the pitlane traffic and had also nailed a great in-lap. It was an impeccable performance from a driver in just his second season and with a mid-grid team, but at this point in the race it seemed merely strategy-enhanced, smart, fast and error-free. What might logically have been expected to have happened next is that the faster cars - Hamilton, the Red Bulls and Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus - would catch and overhaul him and he'd have done a great job in finishing maybe sixth.
Instead, he pulled away from that pack at a considerable rate and from half-way through the long inters phase of the race began cutting great chunks out of Alonso's lead. With the proviso that even the teams don't yet fully understand why the performance patterns on the damp track were as they were, there was definitely more to it than just driver performance. Yes, Perez was driving brilliantly, but it's unfeasible that he was driving at a different rate to Hamilton, Vettel, Webber and Raikkonen, fast enough not only to overcome a car less competitive than theirs, but also another chunk more, all whilst keeping his tyres alive. It is perfectly logical that he should be able to fight with the Ferrari - as the two cars were separated by only 0.1s in qualifying.
The mystery is why both the Ferrari and Sauber were faster than McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus - and that is almost certainly due to how each car was using its tyres in the crucial intermediate tyres phase (between laps 14-40). A feasible theory espoused by at least one prominent engineer was that the faster cars all had stiffer set-ups, with spring rates appropriate to downforce in excess of those generated by the Sauber and Ferrari (stiff springing will work the tyres less in the wet) - and that prevented them from reaching the particular threshold temperature needed to get the intermediate rubber working on the day.
The Sauber wasn't quite as fast as the Ferrari in the first half of the inters phase, but the Ferrari's tyres wilted first and that was when we saw the Sauber catching rapidly. Perez was the man we noticed because of where his earlier tactical calls had put him, but team-mate Kamui Kobayashi was intermittently similarly quick way further back before being slowed by brake problems. He was the fastest man on the track on lap 31, for example, but back in 12th. So it would appear the tyre usage was a Sauber trait rather than a driver one, though Perez had made brilliant use of it.
He is a major talent, but it's in how he applies it that he stands out. His intelligence and adaptability mark him out and if the chosen strategy requires fewer stops than the opposition you see him using a single sweep of steering upon corner entry, waiting until the car is fully settled into the turn before picking up the throttle, minimising the wheelspin at all costs. Yet watch him at somewhere like Monaco or Singapore and he's hustling the car between the walls in a blur of bold throttle and rapid steering corrections, totally at ease with the car sliding around beneath him. He's actually a much more animated driver than Kobayashi in extremis, yet is better able to adapt himself to the minimum of input required of a strategy of long race stints.
In terms of adapting to chassis balance traits he has one of the broadest operating bands of any driver on the grid. He would be a big asset to Ferrari, but only when he gets in a season-long grind alongside Alonso could we have a definitive take on his raw speed. That prospect is surely now one step closer.