Could Perez be Lotus’s Savior?

Now that Sergio Perez has officially announced he is leaving Mclaren, its time to officially add him to the mix of drivers currently looking for employment in 2014. Speculation has no place here. This is real uncertainty for Sergio.

It’s hard to deny that Perez was given a pretty tough set of circumstances to deal with in 2013: a bad car, a teammate at the top of his game (at the end of 2012, at least), tricky tires, more media/sponsorship commitments than ever before, national pride always pressuring him, oh, and a bad car. All of these factors conspired against Sergio and eventually clouded what really hasn’t been a bad season for the Mexican. Sure, it has been far from what he expected, and some mistakes on his part have prevented him from scoring more points than he has now (Monaco comes straight to mind), but considering all of the setbacks mentioned before, Sergio has been a solid performer this season.

Perez’s departure, then, would seem as something of a surprise to the casual onlooker; surely since it was not Sergio’s fault that the car was uncompetitive, the only fair thing to do would be to give him another chance in a much more competitive car to see what he can really do. Mclaren, in all likelihood, would have taken this path, had their priorities not gotten in the way.

I can completely understand the Perez sympathizers in this situation. I agree that he deserves another chance in the car when it is more competitive and representative of his talent, of which there is plenty. But I do understand the commitments Mclaren have to their own, that is, to Kevin Magnussen. It is rare to get the chance to put a rookie in a top team these days. It’s been six years since Lewis Hamilton made his splash into the F1 scene. Mclaren would be silly to turn down an opportunity like this, and looking for any way to do so is understandable.

We must also not forget that Perez is not a Mclaren man. He was a Ferrari protégé just days before the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix, destined for greatness alongside Fernando Alonso in 2013 and as the team leader once the Spaniard left. But then Lewis Hamilton left Mclaren. That meant the team had some frantic searching to do to find a suitable, or at least suitable enough, replacement for their 2008 champion. At that time Perez was the man to watch, having just scored his third podium of the season at the previous race in Italy after, ironically, almost chasing down Hamilton for the win. Importantly, he was out of contract for 2013 with Sauber. That gave Mclaren some pretty serious leverage when it came time for contract negotiations.

Many rightly criticized Mclaren’s decision to sign Perez. I still believe he was not meant for the seat. Nico Hulkenberg was the man to sign, and that became even more clear at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But his lack of “standout” performances at that point in the season (though his fourth and fifth place finishes in Belgium and Valencia, respectively, were extremely impressive) meant he was at a disadvantage when it came to making his case to Mclaren as to why they should sign him for 2013.

One year-and-a-bit later, and now Perez is gone. Almost like he wasn’t even there at all. One can almost here the name “Kovalainen” ringing in one’s head as the words of Perez’s classy, respectful, but rather sad, letter are read aloud.

The driver market is now busier than it has ever been, with Perez, Pastor Maldonado and Nico Hulkenberg the three key players in this rather confusing tale of the silly season. This is how it all plays out, though: Should Lotus’s deal with Quantum fall through (remember, it isn’t officially done, just agreed to on both sides of the deal i.e. Quantum and Lotus), then money from a driver is of vital importance.

Pastor Maldonado has been the favorite candidate for that seat should the situation play out in the manner described above. But Maldonado’s millions are not as secure as we may have once thought.

AUTOWEEK reported in its most recent issue that all “disbursements of hard currency to automobile and motorcycle racers (from Venezuela) who compete abroad” have been “frozen” as the Venezuelan government investigates a corruption scandal. That means Maldonado shouldn’t sit pretty just yet. That $48 million a year in precious oil money could all but disappear just when it would come in its most handy.

Enter Sergio Perez.

His Telmex money, once a major sponsor for Sauber when the Mexican was a driver there in 2011 and 2012, could be put to use in securing him a drive at the Enstone-based squad for 2014. Perhaps not quite as sizable as Maldonado’s sponsorship, Perez’s backing from Telmex would still ensure whichever team was the recipient was far from scared for its financial future. This is where the Mexican’s more highly regarded talent would come in handy. The fact that he isn’t labeled a crash-happy nutcase puts him a step ahead of Pastor. While the mistakes have been cut down vastly in 2013, it takes more than just obscurity on the grid to erase a name like that. Just ask Romain Grosjean.

Sergio Perez may have ended the day a sad fellow, but all is not lost. He could just have set himself up for a future at a team that now has the capability to beat Mclaren on a regular basis. That is something to smile about.

Talking to….Stoffel Vandoorne

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He has been in the spotlight more than any other driver in his series, mostly for reasons out of his control. The mere fact that he has taken the same path as the highly regarded Robin Frijns has made Stoffel a target for high expectations.

He is well-placed for success, though. As the reigning Formula Renault 2.0 champion, Stoffel is one of the favorites for the 3.5 title. Add to that the backing of Fortec Motorsoprts, and you have a winning recipe. Stoffel will now hope that he doesn’t encounter any troubles this season as he hunts down Kevin Magnussen for the championship.

1. You came into this season with a lot of outside pressure; you were seen as the next Robin Frijns. How has this affected the way you approach the season?

It didn’t really affect my approach. I tried not to think about it. I knew I have a similar driving style to Robin, and with the same car we can almost do equal things. This was making me feel confident.

2. How is the relationship with your teammate, Oliver Webb? Do you get along? Do you help each other out at races in terms of setup directions?

We have a good relationship. We get along well and we help each other during the weekend. This is the best way for both to improve instead of hiding everything.

3. What made the Formula Renault path more attractive to the GP3/GP2 path?

Well, it was my only choice to make the Formula Renault path. I don’t have the money to put into GP3, F3 or GP2 so the best solution for me was winning the FR2.0 Eurocup and getting the prize money to make the step into FR3.5. I think it is now one of the best series on the road to F1, and F1 teams tend to place their junior drivers in the Formula Renault series.

4. Your championship campaign got off to a great start when you won the first race of the season. You’ve had some trouble recently, though. How do you keep yourself motivated when things don’t go according to plan?

The speed has always been good, and when things didn’t work out for us, I knew it was bad luck or either mistakes we made. This kept me motivated to carry on, as I we didn’t lack pace and I knew we could battle for victories.

5. What was it like to win in front of your home crowd in Belgium? What emotions went through your mind?

It was amazing! I won my home race in 2010 when I drove in the F4 Eurocup 1.6 championship, but winning in Formula Renault 3.5 is even greater. It was just so cool to have so much support from all the people and fans around. Everybody was just cheering for me and they were all really happy about the result. This just gives you so much motivation to carry on, and fight for victories!

6. How did you get into racing? What got you interested?

My dad designed the restaurant of an indoor karting track when I was 6 years old. I sometimes went with him, and the boss of the karting always let me drive. The boss then also bought me a little go-kart and from then on I never stopped driving.

7. As you’ve been compared to him a lot, do you think you may end up struggling to find a race seat after Formula Renault 3.5 like Robin has? There is a lot of competition out there?

It’s not easy for sure. Everything has to be perfect and you also have to be lucky to get into F1. Having the right people around you makes it a bit easier, but I’m not losing hope.

8. Is the goal after this season to get a third driver role at a F1 team, or do you think a race seat is possible?

At the moment I’m not thinking about next year too much. It’s still too early in the season and first I want to concentrate on Formulaa Renault 3.5 and make the best out of this.

9. Who do you think will be your toughest opponents over the course of this season?

I think definatly Kevin Magnussen. He has shown great pace, and also his consistency is great this season. This is also why he is now leading the championship. It’s still a long way to go and I’m sure if we do well we can catch him by the end of the year. Ultimatly, you only have to be leading the championship after the last round 🙂

10. Finally, what has been your favorite race of your career so far and why?

Well, last weeks one in Spa was one I will always remember for sure. It’s something special winning at home. Another one I liked was Paul-Ricard 2012. I spun from the lead in the opening lap and fell down to P19. The track conditions were really tricky, as everyone was on slicks and it started to rain. I managed to finish the race in P2 again which felt like a victory as well.

Best of luck to Stoffel for the rest of the championship! The Formula Renault 3.5 season promises to be epic!