How McLaren's hurried decision to sign Sergio Perez came back to bite
After all the optimism of last winter, Sergio Perez's McLaren career is over after just one year. Sky F1's Mark Hughes traces the union's unpromising beginnings and explains why even matching Button in qualy wasn't enough to avoid a swift divorce
By Mark Hughes
Last Updated: 21/11/13 11:08am
In the middle of the 'Hamilton to Mercedes' rumours around Monza-Singapore time last year McLaren was confident it had headed-off the possibility of losing Lewis. Coming into the Singapore weekend team principal Martin Whitmarsh had e-mail conformation from his star driver that he was, in fact, going to stay. Whitmarsh said at the time that there was no Plan B. He wasn't expecting to need one. But in trying to ensure Hamilton remained on board, McLaren chairman Ron Dennis had made some moves behind the scenes at this time that were not appreciated by Hamilton - and which caused him to change his decision. The driver's argument was not with Whitmarsh, but he felt unable now to remain on board and by the Tuesday after Singapore he had signed his agreement with Mercedes.
Suddenly Whitmarsh was in urgent need of a Plan B. There were several options available: Nico Hulkenberg was out of contract at Force India, Valtteri Bottas had only a few Friday drives with Williams under his belt but the feedback from everyone there was that the young rookie was a very special talent. There was some preliminary discussion between McLaren and then-Williams executive Toto Wolff about Bottas' availability, but it never amounted to anything more. Instead Perez, who had taken his Sauber to the podium three times that season, was signed at very short notice. The usual McLaren meticulous delving down into data of prior races, the deep analysis normally undertaken just didn't happen this time, according to team insiders.
Superficially Perez looked promising. But for each of those three podiums there was a strong tyre-related reason. He'd been early onto the slicks in Malaysia, jumping him several places, and at Montreal and Monza his tyre strategy was different to everyone else's - and turned out to be right, aided by the Sauber's very gentle tyre usage. He had exploited those opportunities well but there remained a question of just how fast he actually was. When the McLaren press release announcing Perez mentioned his fastest lap at Monaco being a contributory factor in the decision to recruit him, it further suggested this signing had been made in haste.
His fastest lap there came as the leaders deliberately lapped at over 3s off the pace in order to be able to one-stop. For whole chunks of that race the leaders were lapping no faster than the Marussias and Caterhams at the back. Perez, having started at the back after a suspension failure put him into the wall in Q1 and then having been forced to make an unplanned pit stop, had absolutely nothing to lose and no reason not to lap quickly. He was the only driver in this position and the fastest lap was relatively meaningless. There was however the matter of Perez's association with Telmex; he didn't bring money with him to McLaren, but having Telmex's man on board surely might turn out to be a good thing for the future.
Unfortunately for Perez, his McLaren chance came in a season in which the team dropped the ball with the design of its car. It has never really transcended its natural place as a lower order Q3 car. In the comparison to team-mate Jenson Button, Perez is currently level-pegging in qualifying, nine apiece. In the races, Button is 20 points ahead. There is a feeling within the team that Button's performances were at a higher level when he was being pushed by comparison with Hamilton and that there is no pattern of improvement from Perez, that he's simply a good F1 driver, but not the exceptional talent it was hoping for.
In many ways its disappointment in Perez says more about its attitude towards Button than towards him. Had Perez been level-pegging in qualifying with Hamilton in the other McLaren over the season, one senses the team would have been quite satisfied. Button's inconsistent qualifying form and Perez's mere matching of that form has left McLaren feeling its car has been under-exploited.