Will Gray

Gray Matter: Is Sergio Perez too aggressive?

Will Gray

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Kimi Raikkonen didn’t hold back in criticism of Sergio Perez last weekend when he suggested the Mexican needed some sense knocking into him – but is his criticism of the McLaren driver fair or over the top?

After two years settling into F1 at Sauber, Perez has been parachuted into one of the sport’s biggest teams as a replacement for departing former champion Lewis Hamilton.

That’s tough enough - they are big boots to fill - but alongside him, he now has another former champion, Jenson Button, trying to establish himself as the team’s leader and the man to front their new Honda-partnered era in 2015.

McLaren obviously saw plenty of potential in the young Mexican last year when he was driving with Sauber - his battle with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari in Malaysia put him in the spotlight and he performed accordingly, collecting 66 points and three podiums.

But, coincidence or not, as soon as he was announced as a McLaren driver the points and performances dried up.

He was always going to have something to prove this year, but right now it seems he is still struggling to find the right balance to race at the front.

These days, with only 22 places on the grid and so much talent trying to fill them, you only have so long to make your mark at the top.

Heikki Kovalainen, who partnered Hamilton before Button joined in 2010, had two years to shine but never made it to a third after only showing glimpses of the potential he demonstrated with previous team Renault.

Poor Perez had just three races before the criticism began.

And it’s gone from one extreme to the other – from being told in China that he needed to “toughen up” then being lambasted for being too aggressive after a robust performance in Monaco.

So where is the balance?

Well, the chicane in Monaco seemed to be the place where Perez decided to try to work that out.

He made a spectacular opportunistic move on Button on lap 42, one the Briton was quick to appraise. “He made a good move when he overtook me,” admitted Button after the race. “So fair play to him.”

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He pushed it a bit further two laps later, when he made the same move on Fernando Alonso. Alonso had to cut the chicane to avoid a collision and maintained the position, but was forced to concede it later as the stewards deemed the move acceptable.

It was touch-and-go whether that one was a fair passing attempt, and Ferrari argued the case – but when the race was stopped, Alonso walked over to Perez’s car and shook his hand.

Was that a sarcastic or genuine gesture? That’s only for Alonso to know, but he was certainly not gushing in his support of Perez after the race, with a sideswipe comment: "Only McLaren have to be happy with him,” he said. “The others, we just need to do our work.”

If the Alonso move was on the edge, then Perez’s two challenges on Lotus driver Raikkonen later in the race were even more controversial.

The first was a long lunge from further back and it forced both cars to cut the chicane to avoid a potentially major incident. The second, 16 laps later, saw Perez go for a gap that was really not there and this time Raikkonen refused to move so the pair collided.

Perez claimed the Finn should have given him space, but Raikkonen said: “He seems to expect people to be always looking at what he might do and move over or go straight on if he comes into the corner too quick and isn't going to make it...(talking to him) won’t help. Maybe someone should punch him in the face.”

Button took Raikkonen’s side of the argument on that move, but backed his team-mate on the others, adding: “There have been some good moves out there by a lot of people and Checo (Perez) did a really good job with overtaking apart from the last one.”

Whitmarsh also defended Perez and said: “I am happy with his spirit and his challenge. You can over push sometimes but I think he did some great overtakes. I have got to be pleased that he is there, he is committed and racing... In motor racing you have to take a little bit of risk sometimes. If it comes off you are a hero and if it doesn't you are disappointed.”

Perez, of course, has previous, and in just six races this season he has now had run-ins with almost all the leading drivers, including several with his own team-mate.

He is now in the situation that Felipe Massa and Hamilton both found themselves in back in 2011, when the pair kept getting into wheel-to-wheel fights and coming to blows. It resulted in a feud and that drew focus every time the pair came close to each other.

Massa was often blamed for the clumsy collisions, but Hamilton was often accused of being too aggressive. Both went through a tough period that appeared to knock their confidence and had a knock-on effect on their performance.

For Perez, it seems that focus is on him with everyone he is racing – and he needs to be aware of that and act fast.

He needs to learn from his Monaco overtakes and understand which moves win praise and which moves are criticised and find the balance because otherwise teams, and potentially stewards, will consider his previous form (unwittingly or otherwise) and he will start getting punished for what are often genuine excellent overtaking moves.

If Monaco proved anything, it proved Perez is an exciting driver when he’s ‘on it’. And F1 needs drivers like that to be racing at the front.

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