It has not been a straightforward transition at Red Bull for the Mexican, who was announced as Max Verstappen’s teammate late last year having been unceremoniously dropped by Racing Point despite taking the team’s first-ever F1 victory.
Drivers swapping teams over the winter have faced a significant challenge to get up to speed, with a brief winter break followed by F1’s shortest-ever winter test, comprising just three days.
Arriving into Red Bull as a race-winner with 10 years’ worth of F1 experience, Perez had huge expectations on his shoulders to help strengthen the team’s quest to end Mercedes’ long-running supremacy this year.
There have been flashes of promise early on, with Perez outpacing Verstappen on his way to sealing second place in qualifying at Imola, only for a mistake-ridden race to let him down.
Heading into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend, Perez was yet to find himself in the picture for a podium, largely due to his struggles to get to grips with the RB16B over one lap in qualifying – a similar problem that the likes of Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly before him also experienced.
Perez’s early struggles meant Mercedes enjoyed a strategic advantage over Red Bull in the opening rounds of the season, with team principal Christian Horner admitting after the Spanish Grand Prix – in which Perez finished a distant P5 – it “desperately” needs him to be mixing it up at the front if it is to successfully take the fight to Mercedes.
After a stronger weekend in Monaco, Perez looked to be on course for a qualifying breakthrough in Baku having been competitive throughout practice, but he was left to rue an error in Q3 that left him only sixth on the grid while Verstappen took third.
But Perez demonstrated exceptional race pace to put himself in contention on Sunday as he superbly fended off Lewis Hamilton in the battle for second place as Red Bull sat on the verge of achieving its first 1-2 finish since 2016.
Had it not been for Verstappen’s dramatic tyre failure five laps from the end, that’s exactly what would have happened.
Perez ultimately kept his composure as Hamilton uncharacteristically lost his at the late restart to come out on top in a two-lap sprint to finish and seal his maiden win for Red Bull.
While Perez was handed a slice of good luck en route to victory due to the misfortune of his teammate, he had crucially ensured he was in the right place at the right time to capitalise. Such was his speed that without a slow pit stop he might have even threatened over-cutting Verstappen.
Thanks to Perez’s renowned race pace – something which persuaded Red Bull to gamble on him in the first place – the team found itself with the strategic high ground over Mercedes for the first time this year with an off-the-pace Valtteri Bottas out of contention.
In doing so, Perez emphatically answered Horner’s rallying cry in Barcelona and achieved something the likes of Albon and Gasly before him failed to do by ending a three-year-long streak of Verstappen-only victories at Red Bull.
“We knew he was good around here but we didn’t know he was that good,” said Horner. “He’s been quick all weekend. He’s been bang on the pace and the only mistake he made was in Q3 run one.
“His race pace was phenomenal. Had he not been longer in the first stop, he would have been right on top of Max with the overcut, such was his pace in clean air. So phenomenal for him.
“The way he was defending from Lewis [Hamilton] and controlling that was a class act. To see him get that victory will be great for his confidence. It puts him up to third in the drivers’ championship now. So I think he’s ahead of expectations.”
Perez’s Baku performance will act as a huge confidence boost and motivation for a Red Bull team already riding the crest of a wave off the back of two successive victories.
The result, coupled with a disastrous couple of weekends for Mercedes, has extended Red Bull’s advantage over Mercedes in the constructors’ championship to 26 points, while Perez has moved himself up to third in the drivers’ standings.
Perez’s upturn in form has coincided with a difficult spell for Bottas, who retired from second place in Monaco due to a botched pit stop and was nowhere all weekend in Baku as he slumped to a woeful 12th-placed finish.
The Finn has slipped to sixth in the championship and it is his lack of consistent performances so far this season, along with a rare error from Hamilton in Baku, that have played a role in Mercedes losing the lead of both world championships for the first time in the hybrid era.
The fact that Perez said he believes he “finally understands” Red Bull’s 2021 car in Baku will be music to the team’s ears as F1 heads into the first triple-header of the season and a crucial phase in the title race.
“I found my adaptation harder than expected but we have been working extremely hard since day one with the engineers back at the factory and finally we got a very good result for the team,” he explained.
“We have been showing flashes of speed here and there. But I think this weekend everything was looking great until Q3 run one when we got it wrong. But we didn’t let ourselves [get] down. We looked forward and we had a tremendous race, so I’m extremely pleased with the result today.
“This definitely gives a big boost of confidence to myself and also to my team, to my side of the garage.”
If he can replicate his Baku showing in the intense forthcoming run of European rounds, Perez will help Red Bull really apply the pressure to a Mercedes team hurting badly following a pair of performances that Toto Wolff lambasted as “unacceptable”.
“It certainly feels that I’ve made good progress, not just this weekend, also in Monaco,” Perez added.
“Every weekend the understanding grows and after each weekend we do a very deep analysis, we do a lot of work back in the factory to try to figure out what we can do better as a team.
“Certainly I think we are getting there, we are improving and I see no reason why going to a different track we cannot be able to have a similar kind of performance.
“It’s only race number six of the season, there’s still plenty to go but it’s important to keep this momentum and to keep improving, race after race.”
While a case can be made for Perez enjoying the luxury of more competitive machinery compared to either Albon or Gasly, he has taken half the time to make an impression and deliver the kind of results Red Bull has been seeking ever since Daniel Ricciardo left at the end of 2018.
It is also true that Perez is something of a Baku specialist and his impressive performance last weekend could have been flattered slightly by it being one of his stronger tracks. Nonetheless, Perez finally demonstrated that he can be a thorn in Mercedes’ side.
If Perez can continue to be a menace to Mercedes, keeping him for 2022 will be a no-brainer for Red Bull.