Racism, Red Bull and pressure: Sergio Pérez’s most fraught year in F1

Helmut Marko has clouded the 2023 season with derogatory comments about the Mexican driver, drawing criticism from fans, the FIA and Lewis Hamilton

Diego Mancera
Sergio Pérez GP Países Bajos
Sergio Pérez talks with Helmut Marko, Red Bull advisor, during the Dutch Grand Prix in August.Mark Thompson (Getty Images)

Red Bull’s seats are on fire. In 18 years in Formula 1, the team funded by the eponymous energy drink has had 12 drivers, of whom only two have won the drivers’ championship: Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. The dilemma has always been the second race seat. Who can be happy playing second fiddle? Both Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo have tried in their time, unsuccessfully, to snatch the wins. The pressure on the number two is overwhelming in a Red Bull team that has not flinched when clipping the wings of its drivers in the face of a bad run. Sergio Pérez, with his skills and mistakes, has entered this spiral.

Things were going well for Pérez at the start of the season. In the first five races he won in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan and recorded two second-place finishes in Bahrain and Miami. His championship dreams, however, hit a wall at the Monaco Grand Prix when, in qualifying, he lost control on a circuit where he triumphed last year. Doubts began to hover over the Mexican, but the fiercest criticism came from the UK media, which began to debate who would be his best replacement: Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, or Ricciardo.

Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko has been instrumental in the team’s successes and as head of the driver development program, in deciding who deserves to be at the wheel. “He has now woken up from his world championship dream. Maybe that will help him to focus again on delivering the best possible performance,” Marko said of Pérez as Verstappen pulled away in the standings. It was not the first time the Red Bull director had used harsh language toward his driver. When Pérez made a mistake at the French Grand Prix in 2022, Marko said: “Maybe he drank tequila yesterday. Checo was sleeping at the restart.” Later that year, after a poor qualifying performance in Hungary, Marko dialed up his rhetoric: " The summer break hasn’t started yet, but he already seems to be in that mode. We need to speak to him and he needs to stick to Verstappen’s set-ups and be there from first practice.”

The derogatory undertones were beginning to emerge against Pérez last season. Ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in February 2022, a drone and missile attack targeted an Aramco oil company refinery in Jeddah on the same weekend that Formula 1 was due to start its show. In the wake of the events, Marko attempted a joke that ended up causing offense in Mexico: " Max is a bit more relaxed about it,” he said. “Pérez is a little bit scared, but when you live in Mexico City there’s not much more security.”

Formula 1 drivers protest against racism, in July 2020, in a campaign promoted by F1 itself.
Formula 1 drivers protest against racism, in July 2020, in a campaign promoted by F1 itself.POOL (Reuters)

Pérez, the “South American”

Then comments about the nationality of Pérez, the only Latin American on the grid, started to creep in. “As a South American he generally has a lot of ups and downs,” Marko said on Sky Germany in 2022. This year he commented after the Italian Grand Prix: “It was certainly one of the better weekends, and we know he has issues in qualifying. He experiences fluctuations in form; he’s South American, and his mental focus isn’t as consistent as it was with Max or Sebastian [Vettel] .” In the face of criticism over his comments, Marko issued an apology, denying his comments were racist. “I was trying to make a point that Checo has fluctuated in his performance this year, but it was wrong to attribute this to his cultural heritage.”

However, the Austrian has more than once derogatorily referred to Pérez as South American, even though his passport was issued further north.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner responded to anger among fans, sponsors, and the team itself: “Those comments, they weren’t right. I think Helmut quickly recognized that and apologized for that both publicly and spoke directly to Sergio about it. “I think you’re always learning in life, even at 80 years of age, and I think inevitably lessons have been learned. The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) issued a warning to Marko and Lewis Hamilton said of the controversy: “Whilst we say there is no room for any type of discrimination within this sport, which there should be — no room for it — to have leaders and people in his position making comments like this is not good for us moving forwards.”

Pérez has stayed out of the controversy, although the background noise crept into his car. September was the last time the Mexican was on the podium, with a second-place finish at Monza, since when he has struggled to break into the top five. In Mexico, fans have warned that they will make their feelings known to Marko and Red Bull’s top management at the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday. “We have no concerns and are happy to go to Mexico,” said the Austrian.

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