Amid all of the hype surrounding Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen in recent weeks, Sergio Perez has been somewhat forgotten as a potential player in this season's Formula 1 title battle.
The Mexican driver had another fantastic weekend at the Australian Grand Prix, and showed he could be not only a major asset for Red Bull in the constructors championship, but that he could well ask questions of Max Verstappen in the drivers championship.
On a weekend when Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen both failed to finish, Perez again impressed and finally got the luck he deserved after a rotten time in the season's two opening races.
Australian Grand Prix: Sergio Perez proves he should be taken seriously in title battle
In Bahrain, Sergio Perez looked set to take P4, before misfortune for his teammate Max Verstappen left him in P3. A last lap engine failure forced him to retire, meaning Red Bull came away with zero points from the season opener.
Next time out in Jeddah, "Checo" took a stunning career first pole position - only to be caught out by an early safety car and end up finishing an unfortunate fourth. He could feel hard done by not to have taken at the very least a race win and a P4 from the opening two races, which would have left him on 37 points and firmly in the mix with the championship leaders.
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2022
Instead, the misfiring Red Bull left him on just 12 points coming to the Australian Grand Prix.
In the eyes of many, Perez's teammate Max Verstappen and Ferrari man Charles Leclerc are locked in as this season's contenders for the title. Despite the struggles of Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton has been mentioned more in the context of a title battle than Perez has thus far - as has Leclerc's teammate Carlos Sainz.
And yet, for the third weekend in a row, Perez was virtually flawless in Melbourne. Despite falling behind Lewis Hamilton at the start, Perez swiftly made his way back past on lap 10 and was running comfortably in third behind Verstappen and Leclerc.
Mercedes managed to get a jump on Red Bull at the pit stops, allowing Hamilton to rejoin ahead of Perez - but the Mexican was back ahead of the Merc within minutes and, after a safety car was deployed, he charged ahead of both Silver Arrows to claim a fantastic P2.
Both @Charles_Leclerc and @SChecoPerez collected their 16th podium finishes in Melbourne!
And they absolutely drenched @GeorgeRussell63, who picked up his second 😅🍾#AusGP #F1 @FerrariTrento pic.twitter.com/OPZ95HhfEX
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 11, 2022
It was Perez's first podium of the season, and only Red Bull's second. It leaves him fourth in the championship, just behind Carlos Sainz - despite the Spaniard having two podium finishes already.
For "Checo" Perez, Australia may have silenced a few of the doubters that he can carry the load for Red Bull in the absence of Max Verstappen.
In a season where Red Bull and Ferrari are expected to vie for first place in the constructors' championship, it could well come down to the form of the "second" drivers at both teams. The drivers' standings may not reflect it just well, but Perez has been far more impressive than Carlos Sainz this season and, if Red Bull can sort out their reliability issues, he could play a crucial role for the charging bulls in the teams' championship.
He also now sits five points ahead of teammate Max Verstappen in the championship - but there is a major caveat to this. If Perez has been unfortunate, then Verstappen has been woefully so. Two retirements from P2 mean Verstappen sits on just 25 points, rather than the 61 he should have. It's a massive difference, and the points standing don't reflect the gulf in class there has been between him and Perez so far.
That being said, Verstappen likely wouldn't have won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix if it weren't for Perez's misfortune from the lead. It's a deeply complex tale of fortune and misfortune, but Perez has been much closer to Verstappen this season than he might seem at first glance.
He has a pole position and a podium to his name - and, realistically, should also have a race win to go with that.
It's unlikely that Red Bull will allow their drivers to scrap it out between themselves, and it's a well established fact that Max Verstappen is their golden boy, and there's good reason for that. Verstappen is a world champion, and has been one of the best drivers on the grid for five years now. Until this season, no driver other than Daniel Ricciardo had held a candle to him at Red Bull.
But, if the Dutchman continues to experience misfortune, and Sergio Perez can keep this level of performance up, there's no reason that he can't force Christian Horner into a tough call as to who the Bulls' #1 driver should be this season.
Wrapping Up From The Australian Grand Prix
- Driver of the day: Only one candidate here. Any other weekend it would have been Charles Leclerc for his utterly dominant win in the Ferrari, but there was no finer drive this weekend than Alexander Albon's sensational charge to P10 from last on the grid. Albon drove on one set of tyres for 57 of the 58 laps, before holding off Zhou Guanyu on the final lap to claim a first point of the season for Williams.
- Day to forget: Carlos Sainz. Oof. Sainz was unlucky to have his first flying lap in qualifying interrupted by a red flag, but he made a mistake on his only run and ended up rooted in P9 on the starting grid. A disastrous start saw him drop out of the points, before a spin left him beached in the gravel and retiring on only the second lap. On a weekend when his teammate wiped the floor with the field, Sainz was completely off it in Melbourne.
- Big question for round #4: Will McLaren and Mercedes' revival continue? Having suffered early season woe, McLaren and Mercedes both experienced something of a revival at Albert Park, with Mercedes taking P3 and P4, and McLaren right behind them. Imola is a track where both teams claimed podiums last year, so it will be a perfect test of whether they have sorted out their gremlins.