Can Perez fill the hole left by Hamilton?

Monday 01st October 2012, 22:12 by Daniel Chalmers 

Sauber Motorsport AG

Losing Lewis Hamilton is a hammer blow for McLaren, but they have found the best possible replacement in Sergio Perez.

The question is can he fill the huge void left by the Mercedes bound Hamilton?

To many Lewis is the fastest driver in the sport. In terms of the stopwatch he is absolutely irreplaceable. The best two replacements would have been either Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel.

Alonso is contracted to Ferrari till 2016, and after his troubled season in Woking back in 2007 a return was never going to happen. Sebastian is contracted to Red Bull till the end of 2014, but many feel he could be on his way to Ferrari before then.

Having arguably the top three drivers in F1 (Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel) as direct opposition is going to represent an enormous challenge for McLaren in 2013.

The team's only option was to find a driver with potential to take on F1’s biggest stars, and become a world champion himself in the future.

Out of the all the drivers in the midfield Perez is the driver who has made the biggest impact this year. Alongside the likes of Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg he is the one who has hit the highest levels in terms of peak performances.

His drives to the podium in Malaysia, Canada and Italy were sensational. He has shown an incredible ability to conserve his tyres, and in Monza, demonstrated that he has brilliant race craft to match.

He appears to have no fear and hasn’t been overawed when he's been running at the front, and going wheel to wheel with world champions.

What’s also very impressive is how mature and level headed he is for his age, and he seems very focussed on his racing. This may well be a very welcome change for McLaren after life with Lewis during the last couple of years.

No other midfield driver has made as big an impression since Vettel’s giant killing performances for Toro Rosso back in 2008. When you look back over the history of F1 there have been many champions who have begun life by shining in a lesser car, just like Perez has been doing.

Think back to 2001 where Alonso shone in a Minardi, or Ayrton Senna’s performances for Toleman back in 1984. In particular his drive to second place in the wet at Monaco which well and truly put him on the map.

The question is can Sergio transfer these great performances to the bigger stage? Life at the front is very different to life in the midfield. Next year the spotlight will constantly be on him, and with that the pressure will be ramped up considerably.

In the midfield when you score a brilliant result you are showered with praise and receive positive attention. On a weekend when you don’t do so well nobody takes any notice, as the focus is mainly on the battle at the front.

At the front of the grid there is nowhere to hide. You can’t just have three or four good weekends a year. You have to be on it at every single event.

Those occasions next year where Sergio doesn’t have a great race may be the first time in his F1 career where he receives real negative media attention. How he deals with that will be one of the key hurdles in his first year with McLaren.

Not all drivers who shine in lesser cars do well when they end up with a great car. Giancarlo Fisichella is a case in point. He spent years achieving great individual results in lesser cars

However when he finally got that big break with Renault back in 2005 he struggled to make a big impact. Although he did win a couple of races for the team he was never a threat to Alonso.

Heikki Kovalainen is another recent example of a driver who has fared better in lesser machinery, compared to his time in a front running team. So far anyway.

Whilst there have been a few great performances this year from Sergio, there have been weekends where he hasn’t featured at all.

His race pace is clearly very strong but there has to be a question mark over his qualifying pace. So far in 2012 he has been beaten 8-6 by team-mate Kamui Kobayashi on a Saturday.

It's also worth noting that Kamui has had the highest two grid slots for Sauber this year. He qualified on the front row in Spa, and started third in China (following Hamilton's grid penalty).

One lap pace is an area where the young Mexican has to improve, if he is to make the successful transition to being a front team driver.

There is also a thought that the Sauber is actually a better car than their drivers are making it look, and that they should actually be featuring near the front more often.

Of course we mustn’t forget that Perez is still very young, and has many years ahead of him. His consistency will improve with time.

If he can develop to the point where he performs like he did at Monza at every grand prix, then McLaren have potentially pulled off a mega masterstroke.

Perez claims his maiden podium in Malaysia (© Sauber Motorsport AG)

You can be sure they will do everything to help develop their new acquisition. Jenson Button could also be a great and willing team-mate to learn from.

From a commercial point of view Perez is also a very clever signing. Having two British drivers in a British team is very romantic and great for British fans of the team. However commercially having two drivers of the same nationality is a bit limiting.

McLaren will now have the potential to attract sponsorship and interest from South America.

For example Vodafone may well see Perez’s arrival as a great opportunity to have a go at the South American market, rather than leave the team as has been rumoured recently. Or Telmex could become involved.

Now that Mercedes are no longer a shareholder, the sponsorship opportunities that Perez brings could help ensure McLaren stay healthy financially.

This also isn’t the first time that the Woking squad have had to rely on the potential of a midfield driver to replace an outgoing world champion.

At the end of 2001 two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen left the team to go on a sabbatical (which ended up as retirement).

They signed a young Finnish driver called Kimi Raikkonen. He had just completed his first year at Sauber, and impressed immensely despite only a handful of professional races before his F1 debut.

He proved to be a brilliant replacement for Mika. In his second year with the team in 2003, he was in contention for the title despite having a car which was two years old. He lost out to eventual champion Schumacher by just two points.

In 2005 he contested the world championship again against Fernando Alonso. If it wasn’t for McLaren’s poor reliability back at that time Kimi could easily have won two championships with the team. At McLaren he cemented his position as one of the best drivers in the sport.

The team will be hoping Perez can emerge as the next F1 megastar just as Raikkonen did back then.

Although it’s going be harder to replicate what the iceman managed to achieve. The difference between now and 2002 (Kimi’s first year with McLaren) is that F1 is so much more competitive. The field is much tighter, and there are more teams capable of running at the front of the field.

Can Button mentor the 22-year-old Perez? (© McLaren)

The quality of the drivers is higher too. If Schumacher stays in F1 there will again be six world champions on the grid. On the 2002 grid Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve were the only two active world champions.

If McLaren give Perez a quick car then there is no doubt that he is capable of standing on the top step of the podium. He has already shown this year that he is a potential GP winner when a weekend goes perfectly for him, even in the Sauber.

The question is going to be whether he can deliver every single weekend. That is what McLaren will need from him, in order to compete with their formidable level of opposition in the championship.

Ultimately whoever McLaren picked was going to represent a calculated gamble. However if they can develop Perez and remove all the rough edges, then the potential returns are huge.  

In the short term however, as he is still developing and growing, there is no doubt McLaren may be lacking a bit on the driver front in direct comparison to their rivals.

Whilst Button is world class on his day when the car suits him, his form drops off dramatically when things aren’t so well. 2012 has demonstrated that perfectly.

Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull know they have a proven megastar they can rely upon, to deliver the car’s full potential at every single race. At the moment McLaren can’t be 100% sure that they are going to have that next year.

How well Perez does could hold the key to McLaren’s chances over the next few years.

Although there are plenty of signs that he could become one of the next great F1 drivers, fireworks are certainly not guaranteed.

A shake-up in the driver line-up is always great for F1. Seeing Perez’s progress is going to be one of F1’s most compelling stories in 2013.

Either Perez will be McLaren’s next star or they will regret failing to retain Lewis. Akin to the time they failed to sign Schumacher from Ferrari all those years ago. Time will tell.

You can follow Daniel Chalmers and The F1 Times on Twitter.

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