x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mexican wave of optimism for Sergio Perez at McLaren

Infighting at mature McLaren marque will quickly blow over. And when it does young Mexican Sergio Perez will benefit the most.

Sergio Perez leads his McLaren-Mercedes teammate Jenson Button at Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix before the Mexican's over exuberance saw him clip the Englishman's wheels at 300kph. Button described Perez's performance as 'dangerous' and 'dirty'. Clive Mason / Getty Images
Sergio Perez leads his McLaren-Mercedes teammate Jenson Button at Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix before the Mexican's over exuberance saw him clip the Englishman's wheels at 300kph. Button described Perez's performance as 'dangerous' and 'dirty'. Clive Mason / Getty Images

Forget the financial implications and the fault-ridden car he has been handed. Forget the fact he already had one foot in a Ferrari and would have in all likelihood replaced Felipe Massa at the end of this season. On a personal level, Sergio Perez's move to McLaren-Mercedes may just have been the most sagacious decision the young Mexican will ever make.

In 2011, his rookie season, Perez looked 18 years old: excitable, impressionable and with little hamster cheeks. In 2012, after a few strong results with Sauber, he looked closer to 28: a presumptuousness had appeared along with the designer stubble; he wore his sunglasses indoors in low light.

This year, having joined McLaren and been handed some humility, he looks 23, which can only be a good thing, given that is his actual age.

There is likely no better team in Formula One to remove egotistical tendencies than Martin Whitmarsh's underachieving outfit. That may sound ridiculous given the reputation of Lewis Hamilton, the man Perez replaced, but throughout the team is level-headed talent. The potential is there, but it is not as predestined as to produce puffed-up self-importance. Disappointment always lurks nearby.

In the best possible way, Whitmarsh is without doubt the most unremarkable team principal at the top end of the paddock. He is a man who looks forward to the day he can slip back into the shadows and out of the sporting limelight.

Jenson Button is arguably the most grounded and agreeable world champion in the sport's six-decade history; proof that a drivers' title does not need to be complemented by an ego the size of a private island.

McLaren are a team that, given the necessary foundations, can turn boys to men and that is what we are seeing with Perez. Following relatively prosaic performances in Australia, Malaysia and China, Whitmarsh instructed his new charge to "toughen up", "use his elbows" and "be robust without being dirty".

The result was that, at Sakhir International Circuit, Perez pumped his muscles and fought like a lucha libre wrestler. Yes, he overdid it at one stage and, yes, he broke the first rule of motor racing, which is to never collide with your teammate, but he showed the strength that Whitmarsh had demanded.

In a high-beam balancing act, he is making progress.

Perez will not only benefit from Whitmarsh's resolute guidance, he will also profit from Button's pragmatic approach. The 2009 world champion was understandably upset with his teammate for the touching of wheels at 300kph and the mistake that saw Perez clip the car's rear end. He called the performance "dangerous" and "dirty", yet emotions always run high in the heat of the moment.

Button will calm quickly and it was telling that Whitmarsh, an hour after the race, said his elder driver was "virtually there already" in terms of repose. He is not the type of character to hold a grudge and allow resentment to rise. By the time they arrive in Spain, in three weeks time, the issue will be water under a Barcelona bridge.

What might linger longer in Button's frontal lobe, however, is that he can no longer expect Perez to play second fiddle.

The Englishman had arrived in Bahrain having out-qualified his teammate at all three race weekends this year and, were it not for a pit-stop error outside his control, in Malaysia, would have scored in all three as well. Button called for Perez to contribute more points, but he would have been confident his young teammate knew his place as No 2 driver. He would have felt he was, like the sponsor on his race suit reads, Boss.

That is no longer necessarily the case and it is this that will have rattled him more than anything.

Having had everything his own way, Button was caught off guard by Perez's aggressive manoeuvring and probably surprised that his teammate had the pace to fight him so tenaciously.

As we saw later, Button's pace was not as strong as Perez's, so would it have been wiser for Whitmarsh to tell the two teammates not to race? For Button to move aside?

Perhaps for the good of the team's heart rates and fingernails, yes. But for the sake of the spattering of spectators around Sakhir and those who tune in religiously to witness racing? Not at all.

Daring, dynamic racing is what Formula One is built around and that is what Perez produced. At McLaren, the boy is maturing into a man.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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