That image in Sergio Perez's mirrors is closer than he thinks. And it's Daniel Ricciardo.
The last we saw of Ricciardo he was departing McLaren at the close of the 2022 season for a reserve role with Red Bull Racing. At the time it was not necessarily thought of as cover in case Christian Horner and company grew tired with Nyck de Vries' growth curve having more bumps than an unpaved country road, but that is apparently what it has developed into. And it could be even more due to Perez's struggles to deliver consistency.
At one point Perez was only 14 points adrift of Max Verstappen in the points race. Now, after failing to have reached the final qualifying sessions at Monaco, Spain, Canada, Austria and Britain, which resulted in him starting deeper in the field, the Mexican is 99 points back of the two-time defending champion.
"I know where is the problem, and it's on Saturday," Perez told formula1.com. "[In qualifying], there are a few things we need to correct, but the positive thing is that the pace is there on Sundays. At the end of the day that's where the points are given."
Problem identified then, but is the problem solved? And, in the meantime, Ricciardo has not been secretive about what seat he is dreaming about -- and it wasn't de Vries' at AlphaTauri.
"[With] everything that happened the past few years, getting back into the sport after taking some time off, I knew it would be very hard to go back in at the top," Ricciardo told formula1.com. "Of course, that was my wish, but you need to be realistic at some point and say, 'Look, if I want to get back, let's say, in a Red Bull seat, it's going to take a process and a path,' and this for me is the best path at the moment. … Let's call that the dream, so to speak, but there's no point thinking about that. There's going to be a lot of work to do here, [and] I think in terms of expectation there is none."
As for Verstappen's opinion, the Dutchman told formula1.com he "never actually wanted [Ricciardo] to leave. I mean, all of these things … We know that we get on very well. … I think we all know that Nyck is an incredible driver. He's shown that in every single category. I think these new generation of cars, when you're a rookie, it doesn't matter what age you are or whatever, they are quite difficult, I think, to get on top of, plus that the car probably is not the most competitive, [which] all made it a bit harder. I know that he has a lot of opportunities, I spoke to him also last week, we saw each other, and he will definitely find his feet again with a great team somewhere in a great championship. I don't think it actually is the end of the world."
It's a sentiment that de Vries shared on his Instagram account, writing: "Of course it hurts that the F1 chance I dreamed of for so long ended prematurely. But life is not a destination, it's a journey, and sometimes you have to take the hard road to get where you want to be. I am grateful for our privileged lives, proud of our journey and my family. This is just another experience, we move on and look forward to the next chapter."
How to watch the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary
- Date: Sunday, July 23
- Location: 2.722 mile (4.381 kilometer), 14-turn Hungaroring Circuit, Budapest, Mogyorod District, Pest County, Hungary
- Time: 8.55 a.m. ET
- TV: ESPN2, ESPN+
- Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to watch for
Another race, another qualifying wrinkle. This time it's how many tires the teams each will have and is called the Alternative Tire Allocation -- because we have to have a name for everything in F1. Pirelli will bring the C3 hard, C4 medium and C5 soft, but instead of the typical 13 sets of tires Pirelli will instead supply only 11 sets, broken down as three sets of the C3s, four of the C4s and four of the C5s. The teams will be forced to use only one compound for during each qualifying session, with hard for the first session, mediums for Q2 and softs for Q3. Hungaroring is the second-slowest circuit on the calendar, behind only Monaco (so expect the teams to dial in Monaco levels of downforce), but the stresses on tires due to the lack of straights, hard braking and cornering is intense. Traction getting out of each turn is key. As usual, tire degradation will again play a major role, which will put a team such as Ferrari (which has experienced high tire deg) at risk. The teams with the best chassis will shine here (hello, Red Bull Racing) but it is just as important for a driver to get into a good rhythm to lay down a great lap.
"Air and asphalt temperatures, which are usually very high, are the main features [at Hungary]," Pirelli motorsport director Mario Isola told formula1.com. "This puts the drivers, cars and tyres to the test, not least because the twisting nature of the track does not allow anyone or anything to catch their breath. … There's a fairly long pit straight, which provides the only real overtaking opportunity under braking into the first right-hand corner. Then there are 13 more corners – seven right-handers and six left-handers. … The biggest risk is tyre overheating. Despite being a permanent track, the Hungaroring is not used very often and the asphalt conditions improve considerably during the weekend as the ideal racing line rubbers in."
The 2022 race saw a two-stopper strategy come out on top for Max Verstappen and the top five cars, with Charles Leclerc's Ferrari making three stops and finishing sixth. Look for cars to go for the two-stop route again, but whether they start on the hards during the opening laps, the mediums or the softs will be determined by what sort of degradation the teams can determine out of the compounds through the practice runs on Friday — which faces the high likelihood of having rain wash the rubber clean off the track — and Saturday. Start on the softs and expect the opening pit stops to happen anywhere from Lap 15 to 22; then mediums until Lap 41 to 48 and mediums to the finish. Or start on the mediums, change to the hards between Lap 27 and Lap 35, then run the hard compound to the finish.