With the 2017 Formula 1 season on the home stretch and the 2018 drivers lineups pretty much set for the top teams, attention has turned to what could be a wild silly season next summer and who will be where in 2019.
Last week we discussed how Red Bull could lose their talented pair of drivers due to the appetites of Mercedes and Ferrari and the championship aspirations of both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.
Oddly, it’s a situation that Force India were in to a certain extent last season. A sensational 2016 saw interest in Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg increase, especially with the annual rumours of Kimi Raikkonen’s retirement and Renault’s plans to make an assault on the points.
Force India were able to keep hold of their most prized driver, Sergio Perez, who scored two podium finishes, qualified on the front row in Azerbaijan, and finished the season as “best of the rest” in the World Drivers’ Championship in 2016.
Sergio Perez’s past haunts his future
For as wildly impressive as Checo’s 2016 was, the interest from top teams with an available seat was never more than passing. A big part of the reason why was his 2013 season with McLaren.
Coming into a team that had won seven races in 2012 as a replacement for Lewis Hamilton was never going to be easy. Doing so as a 23-year-old with three podium finishes under his belt made it an even bigger task, and I don’t think even Checo could call it a successful year with the Woking-based team.
The car failed to deliver the pace it had done in 2012, and neither Perez nor Jenson Button found themselves on the podium throughout the season. However, Checo was consistently off the pace of Button and made some very poor errors in judgement.
He ended up finishing 11th in the drivers’ championship, 24 points behind Button and below Hulkenberg in a Sauber.
He was dropped before the end of the 2013 season, and the tag of “failure at the highest level” has been impossible to shift among the top teams, no matter his performances with Force India since 2014.
In the last two years Perez has five non-points finishes, two podiums, nine other top six finishes, and 183 points. He has been the most impressive driver outside of the Mercedes-Ferrari-Red Bull trio of elite teams. But because he failed to impress in a down-year for a historically strong team he has been undeservedly tarnished with the brush of failure.
Will he get a second chance?
After deciding to stay at Force India last season, Perez needed a strong 2017 to stand any chance of working himself into a seat higher up the grid. He is once again the “best of the rest” in the drivers’ championship in 2017, sitting 29 points behind Max Verstappen in the standings and 17 points ahead of his teammate.
And that final point is, I think, the nail in Perez’s coffin.
Esteban Ocon has stepped into Force India with just half a season of F1 experience and gone toe-to-toe, wheel-to-wheel, and occasionally wheel-to-sidepod, with the Mexican.
With seats not opening at the top of the grid until 2019, at which point he will be 29, Checo’s inability to assert his dominance over Ocon has once again raised doubts about his overall pace.
Force India themselves haven’t been much help, trying to keep both their most successful driver and their engine suppliers young protégé happy. By not being forceful with their drivers they have clashed, and crashed, far too regularly, and it has certainly hurt his performance this year, as well as Ocon's.
With Perez’s advancing age, and his problems in putting away a youngster in the same car, it seems that a better seat in 2019 is nothing more than a pipe dream for Checo, and the window to pick up his first race win is almost certainly closed. Only remarkable, best-of-his-life, form in the next dozen grands prix will turn any heads at Ferrari and Mercedes.
Do you think the time has passed for Perez? Is Ocon's form just too much to ignore for the top teams? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!