F1 mailbag: Sergio Pérez, Daniel Ricciardo and the second Red Bull seat

Mexico was meant to be the weekend where Sergio Pérez delighted his home fans and put to rest speculation about his Red Bull future.

Instead, the pressure on Pérez feels heavier than ever. Checo’s overly ambitious bid to take the lead at Turn 1 ended in a collision and a first-lap retirement.

Max Verstappen marched on to a record 16th win of the season, and Daniel Ricciardo, the man openly in contention to one day take Pérez’s seat, put in the best performance yet since returning to F1.

With three races in the next four weeks to end the season, F1 2023 still has plenty of big storylines brewing, many of which came up in the post-Mexico mailbag. Let’s get into it.

Editor’s note: Questions have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Alright, we all want to know: is Checo Pérez getting fired? — Zee I.

Pérez claimed after Austin that he still had a lot of untapped potential after altering his approach in response to his post-summer break struggles. On home soil, Mexico was the ideal weekend for him to make good on that promise — only to end in tears when he tried going around the outside of two cars at Turn 1.

We saw the footage on the TV feed of Pérez talking to Christian Horner on the Red Bull pit wall after his retirement. Horner said he told Pérez, “You’re going for the lead in your home race, you wouldn’t be a racing driver if you weren’t going for it.”

While true, it was also an ample opportunity thrown away. The Red Bull clearly had the pace to take Pérez to the podium, which would have pretty much sewn up P2 in the championship. Now the gap to Lewis Hamilton is just 20 points – a margin that, with the Mercedes’ recent pace, could easily be wiped away.

For the second week in a row, Horner denied Pérez would lose his seat if he didn’t finish as runner-up in the standings, claiming it was “not as binary as that.”

“Checo has an agreement with us for next year, and that’s our intention, for him to be in the car in 2024,” Horner added.

“Intention” was the word that stood out. Yes, Red Bull wants to have him in the car next year. But if the performances show no sign of lifting upwards in the final three races, and if he were to lose second in the championship, would that force a rethink?

Pérez’s form this year hasn’t cost Red Bull anything in the constructors’ championship, thanks to Verstappen’s domination. The world champion has twice as many points (480) as Pérez. But the team cannot assume that will be the case next year. In the event a Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren emerges as a more regular, serious threat, the second driver becomes important again for Red Bull’s title hopes.

Do you think if Daniel Ricciardo can keep this momentum for the rest of the season, he can be a real contender for a 2024 Red Bull seat? — Benqian W. 

And here’s the other side of the narrative. Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t have timed his best performance since returning to F1 in July any better. Hitting a new peak in his comeback right when the driver whose seat he is trying to take suffers his most significant setback yet? That’s the kind of story “Drive to Survive” lives for.

I asked Horner after the race what he thought of Ricciardo’s weekend. He called the Australian’s form in Mexico “outstanding” and that “it looked like the Daniel of old” — a ringing endorsement of Red Bull’s decision to bring him back into the fold this year.

It certainly fuels the possibility of Ricciardo being a real contender to replace Pérez for 2024. Remember: the way Red Bull operates its F1 contracts allows it to move its drivers across both Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri, which is why previous swaps (Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat in 2016; Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly in 2019) have been so straightforward.

Ricciardo said upon his return to the F1 grid with AlphaTauri in July that it was a move with 2025 in mind – when he wants to be back in a Red Bull. Now, he has the chance to build on his impressive Mexico weekend through the final three races and make a compelling argument to Red Bull he’s ready to return to the seat he vacated at the end of 2018.

It’ll take more than one strong weekend in Mexico to make a strong enough case. But if Ricciardo can replicate that form in the final three races, potentially lifting AlphaTauri from last to seventh in the constructors’ single-handedly, it would be a big statement — and surely put Ricciardo at the front of the queue should Red Bull waver on its “intention” to field Pérez next year.

Aston Martin has plummeted from its early-season heights. (ANDRES STAPFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

At what point is Fernando Alonso going to lose faith and retire? Aston Martin has gone from second quickest to arguably slowest in alarmingly quick time. He can’t go through another year fighting for minor points at best, can he? — Greg S.

The rate at which Aston Martin has slipped back this year has been shocking. Alonso’s season swung from being a correct pit call away from victory in Monaco to struggling to score points. The team has gone from P2 to P5 in the constructors’, while Alonso could fall as far as eighth in the drivers’ standings before the season ends.

The Spaniard admitted after the race that Aston Martin now has nothing to fight for in the final three races. That’s a far cry from his tune a few races ago, when he thought McLaren was being overconfident believingit would pass for fourth in the championship. That aged like milk.

Alonso always knew this would be a long-term project at Aston Martin. He said earlier in the season that fighting for podiums was his expectation for year two, not year one, suggesting he always had patience going into this project.

But as you rightly say, fighting for minor points is not where Alonso wants to be. Aston Martin needs to replicate its impressive winter step into 2023 heading into 2024, only this time, there’s greater competition with McLaren in the mix. It’s going to make it tough.

I think the early part of next year will be critical for Alonso’s faith in the Aston Martin project. He’s got the taste of podiums and competing at the front again. It’s a hunger he’ll want to ensure is satisfied.

Do Lando Norris and McLaren have the pace to win a race this season? — Alex M.

Without a few factors going their way, no, I don’t think Norris or McLaren can win any of the final three races. But that’s chiefly because of how utterly dominant the Verstappen/Red Bull combination continues to be.

Norris is performing at a ridiculously high level right now. His fightback in Mexico was superb, and he’d have been on the podium without his messy qualifying. He spoke in Austin about the chance of winning this year and said the best opportunity had passed by in Qatar when he was frustrated to miss out on pole and have a chance at challenging Verstappen.

The Brazil sprint weekend could throw a few curveballs that present an opportunity to the chasing pack. Mercedes should do well at Interlagos — George Russell won there last year — but the McLaren car is increasingly looking like the best all-rounder and second-quickest car. Even when the team downplays its chances going into a weekend, it does so with Verstappen in mind. Podiums through the rest of the season remain possible.

It’s been a mighty turnaround by McLaren this year. I just don’t think it’ll quite be enough to win a race before the season is out when Verstappen and Red Bull are in the form they are.

What is the fewest amount of grand prix winners in an F1 season? What other records are on the table if Verstappen wins the remaining races? — Wing C.

We’ve never had a season where fewer than three drivers have won races, which 2023 will tie unless someone besides Verstappen, Pérez or Carlos Sainz wins one of the last three races.

Mercedes’ domination in the first years of the V6 hybrid era meant F1 only got three different winners in 2014 (Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Ricciardo) and 2015 (Hamilton, Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel).

Technically, the 1950 F1 season only had two ‘grand prix’ winners. Nino Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio each won three grands prix, with the seventh round being the Indianapolis 500 (which was not run to grand prix regulations but was still part of the championship.)

If Verstappen wins the remaining races, he’ll finish with 19 wins for the season and a win ratio of 86 percent, smashing the record of 75 percent held by Alberto Ascari from 1952, when he won six out of eight races. Verstappen only needs to win one of the last three races to beat that landmark.

Sweeping the remaining races would put Verstappen clear of Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel on the all-time wins list with 54 victories, only leaving Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (103) to beat.

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