Sergio Perez exclusive: 'I came to Europe on my own at 15 - I decided early on to fight for my dream'

Sergio Perez
Mexican driver Sergio Perez is an inspirational figure Credit: Getty Images

Sergio Pérez was, like much of the world on Nov 9 last year, still absorbing the shock of Donald Trump’s presidential election win when one particular message caught his eye.

The tweet came from his too-cool-for-school sunglasses sponsors, Hawkers, and it read: “Mexicans, put on these glasses so they can’t see your crying eyes tomorrow when building the wall.”

Poleaxed by the crassness of it, Pérez struck back. Unmoved by the company’s subsequent deletion of the post, he told it he was severing the relationship immediately.

Even today, on the cusp of his seventh season in Formula One, there is a sense that the anger within this proud native of Guadalajara has yet to simmer down.

“I didn’t like the comment, I didn’t find it funny at all,” he says. “I found it very disrespectful to my country, and that’s why I decided to stop. I always like people to respect my country as I respect theirs.”

Pérez is a refreshing novelty in the F1 paddock in that he adopts a political stance at all. While the early part of the season resembles a dubious exercise in dictatorship tourism, encompassing stops in China, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, most drivers stay scrupulously mute about the fig-leaf of legitimacy their sport offers to these human rights-abusing regimes.

Jenson Button once described his experience of Bahrain, two years after the kingdom’s ‘Bloody Thursday’ riots, as follows: “Hotel, pool, track.”

Mercifully, Pérez chooses to be more thoughtful, using the influence and privilege of his profile to highlight the best of Mexico in spite of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric against his nation.

Last month, he lent his support to a protest started at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, the circuit hosting the Mexican Grand Prix, against the president’s plans for a southern border wall. “Bridges not walls,” the slogan declared.

“Whatever happens, Mexicans need to be united,” Pérez says. “That’s a sentiment I want to share. I try to give my thoughts, to be totally honest with my people.”

Pérez is accustomed to being cast as an outsider. He was the first Mexican to earn a seat in F1 in 30 years when he made his debut in 2011 and he makes his living in the first team bankrolled by India, thanks to the billions of Vijay Mallya.

There are two theories for how he reached this position. The first is that Pérez has always had silver-spoon treatment, given the financial support he has received from Telmex, owned by Carlos Slim, the telecommunications magnate and one of the richest men on Earth.

The second, which Pérez passionately defends in our conversation at the Circuit de Catalunya, has a little more romance. All that he has accomplished, he argues, is due to his own graft and enterprise. “Coming from Mexico, I had to move to Europe when I was 15,” he says.

Perez is fiercely patriotic

“I came all on my own. The loneliness could be tough. But if I hadn’t come so early, I wouldn’t even be sitting here. I had to take the decision early to fight for my dream.”

A graduate of the Ferrari young drivers’ programme, who thrived in his spells at Sauber and McLaren, Pérez has since made waves for Force India. Striving to throw off the dead weight of Mercedes supremacy, he finished third last season in both Monaco and Baku in a car that struggles to emulate the sophistication of its rivals.

He outscored Valtteri Bottas, whom Mercedes felt justified in appointing as Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate for 2017, by 16 points. At 27, and restless for his first realistic chance of a championship, Pérez is optimistic that the upward curve can be sustained.

But the demands of this year’s cars, with their lightning-fast cornering – creating heightened G-forces in the cockpit – are stretching him as never before.

“I had to train harder than ever in pre-season, especially in the neck and the core,” he explains. “These are cars that lift drivers to their best. They take so much out of your body.”

The team’s stipulations could not be stricter. Pérez and his team-mate have been told that they need to weigh no more than 11 stone by the time they line up on the grid for next Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix. As it stands, Pérez is 4lb over that target and acknowledges he has been struggling with some aspects of the car’s handling.

“It’s a long year, where we have to develop the car step by step,” he says. “This has to be a season when Force India moves forwards significantly.”

On the evidence of two testing sessions in Spain, it is a daunting task, with Mercedes and Ferrari already performing over a second a lap quicker.

After a winter of profound change, in which Bernie Ecclestone has been replaced as F1 chief by US conglomerate Liberty Media, the last item on anybody’s wish list is another eight months of unanswerable dominance by the established elite.

We can rest assured that Pérez, in a Force India car arrestingly redesigned in bright pink, will be leading the resistance. After all, this is a young driver seeking to model himself, in all he does, upon the late Ayrton Senna. Like Senna, Pérez is mobbed hysterically each time he returns to his homeland, but he sees a salutary example in the Brazilian’s conduct.

“At McLaren, I would always ask for stories about Ayrton,” he reflects. “He was somebody who did so much for his sport and his country. He had natural charisma, too, something that all we drivers love.” With his patriotism and conscience, Pérez gives every impression that an encore in politics might one day await.

Please review our commenting policy