It seemed like Sergio Perez was getting a lesson in Murphy's Law as the 2013 F1 season ended at the Brazilian Grand Prix. After crashing out of qualifying, the Mexican required a gearbox change and was bumped from 14th to 19th on the grid. But then the race started.
By the third corner, Perez had passed three cars, and he just kept climbing, eventually finishing sixth. Combined with Jenson Button's fourth-place finish, the final race of 2013 proved to be McLaren's best.
While the team will look to build on this improved performance during the offseason, Perez will not be part of it. Unexpectedly and unceremoniously fired with ten days left in the season, the Mexican is now searching frantically for a race seat. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Kevin Magnussen, son of former McLaren driver Jan, will replace him. But has McLaren made the right choice?
A Sky Sports report says that McLaren made their decision to sign Perez in 2012 too hastily, based on a couple of good results with Sauber, and that the team began to rue that decision. McLaren had felt pressured by Lewis Hamilton's decision to sign with Mercedes, and did not perform their due diligence on Perez. Now, they have they made the same hasty decision with Magnussen (although, being part of the team's Young Driver Programme, he is more of a known quantity than Perez was).
In an interview with Formula1.com team principal Martin Whitmarsh said that a deal was in place for the Dane to drive in F1 with another (presumably lesser) team in 2014. When that agreement fell through at the last minute, McLaren decided to replace Perez with Magnussen.
While Magnussen is obviously a talented driver—he won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series this year—McLaren wanted a year of seasoning for him at the top level of motorsport, to ensure he was ready to step into a top-tier drive. Whitmarsh admitted to Formula1.com that, "There is a lot of risk. That is why my first choice for Kevin was to put him in another team and do a year or two and then bring him back."
McLaren is trying to move on from one of their worst seasons ever. The team's fifth-place finish in the Constructors' Championship matches their lowest finish in the last 30 years. In 2004, David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen combined to finish fifth, but Raikkonen still won the Belgian Grand Prix and stood on the podium in three other races. In 2013, Button's fourth place in Brazil was the team's best result.
Perez himself finished in the points more consistently this year than he did in 2012 with Sauber, although his point total was lower. Meanwhile, Magnussen will face a big step up from Formula Renault 3.5 to F1 (it was only a few months ago that people were questioning Sergey Sirotkin making the same jump), but this is the right year for it. With significant changes to the technical regulations for next year, previous experience setting up an F1 car will not be as relevant as in years with relatively stable regulations.
Rookie performance in 2013 was somewhat mixed. Valtteri Bottas out-scored Pastor Maldonado at Williams, while Esteban Gutierrez was soundly beaten by Nico Hulkenberg with Sauber. Neither Caterham driver scored points, but rookie Giedo van der Garde performed comparably to the more experienced Charles Pic.
In the end, it is too early to say whether McLaren has made a mistake or not. But no matter what happens with Magnussen, it is encouraging to see another young driver earning their way into F1 based on their talent, after so much talk this year about squeezed budgets and pay drivers.
As for Perez, he is confident that he will find a seat for next season, despite the short notice. At the Brazilian Grand Prix he told Formula1.com that the chances are "95 percent that I will remain in F1 next season." His streak of four straight points finishes to the end the year should help. If it doesn't, maybe he can get Carlos Slim and Telmex to convince Sauber to take him back.
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