On paper, Sergio Perez was a shoo-in for a slot in our top ten F1 drivers of 2023. He was one of two not named Max Verstappen to win a race and he finished second to the Dutchman in the world championship.
And yet, he's not made the cut on ESPN's list, which you can read in full here. It's of course entirely subjective, but the fact this question is even open for debate highlights the kind of year Perez had. His form was so erratic that much of the narrative around him was whether he would still be driving for Red Bull in 2024. He will be, but that question will be lingering right on the surface next year.
Was his season really bad enough to not be considered top ten? As always, these things are about context. There's a key caveat in the list compiled by my colleague Laurence Edmondson earlier this month that the rankings are "based on the car they had at their disposal, the stage they are at in their career and the expectations they faced going into the season," so let's break it down like that.
The car at his disposal
This is perhaps the most damming part of Perez's year. The RB19 will go down as the most dominant car in modern F1 history - previously one-sided seasons of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton pale in comparison to what Verstappen achieved. Perez was blessed with one of the finest F1 cars any team has built in recent memory but finished with half the points tally of his teammate. While Red Bull celebrated constructors' championship success, Verstappen's results would have won it single-handedly.
You could argue Verstappen's incredible form made the RB19 look better than it was, but the margin of many of his wins showed how much pace there was to find. While Verstappen may well have won the same number of races alongside an in-form Perez, his teammate should have been on the podium most weekends. From his second and final win in Baku onwards, Perez visited the podium just six times -- in the same timespan, Lando Norris had seven podiums, while Hamilton and Charles Leclerc had five each, the three of them doing so in cars inferior to the RB19.
For whatever reason Perez just couldn't get on top of it. The Mexican driver's problems seemed to be rooted in qualifying, where poor performances often put his RB19 out of position and forced him to play catch up in the race. A heavy crash in qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix, a race he won 12 months prior, summed up the season that was to follow, leaving him with the prospect of a frustrating Sunday ahead.
The stage he's at in his career
Perez is one of the most experienced drivers on the grid with 257 starts -- only Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have started more races -- and it was surprising to see his year fall apart so dramatically and rapidly. Sure, Verstappen has become the ultimate teammate killer on the grid, with Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon both struggling to match him in their stints in the same car. You can also point to how the results shifted towards Verstappen and away from Daniel Ricciardo in the latter part of 2018, after the Australian had confirmed his intention to drive elsewhere the following year. But, as one of the grid's longest serving drivers, Perez is at a different point in his career to all three of his predecessors in his seat and more was expected from him as a result. Perez never got himself out of the downward spiral he hit from Monaco onwards. His mistake at the start of the Mexican Grand Prix looked more like an over-eager young driver than one of the grid's elder statesmen.
Before Red Bull, Perez made a habit of overperforming in cars that were often difficult to drive, learning patience and honing his race craft with machinery which for so long did not give him a chance to win. While Gasly and Albon's poor form directly led to huge pinchpoints in their respective careers, they could both argue they had been promoted earlier than Red Bull intended and before they were necessarily ready for the challenge. Both have rightly been given a second chance elsewhere. On the flip side Perez's opportunity with Red Bull was overdue and he waited his whole career to drive a car as good as he had in 2023 and, after his good start, he squandered it.
Much like Valtteri Bottas with Hamilton, Perez expected (or hoped to) take the fight to Verstappen in 2023. Instead, we had one of the dullest and one-sided F1 championships in history, which perhaps colours some of what has been written here. Verstappen likely would have won the championship before the Abu Dhabi finale but Perez had the car, and, importantly, has the talent, to have at least made the title fight into a spectacle of some kind.
Even before his move to Red Bull for 2021, Perez had made a name for himself as one of F1's most talented, in terms of race craft and tyre management. His form has been up and down in the three seasons since, but at the start of the year there was a sense that Perez simply needed to get some momentum going and accumulate results -- in other words, keep himself in the hunt, like Nico Rosberg did successfully in 2016 versus Hamilton.
Luckily for Perez, one of the biggest believers in his talent is Red Bull, which was evidenced by how strongly they stuck by him through the lowest moments of 2023. On his day he remains one of the better drivers on F1's grid, something he demonstrated in a superb, and fair, wheel to wheel duel with Fernando Alonso during the Brazilian Grand Prix. But that fight wasn't always there -- he meekly surrendered the win to Verstappen in Miami and let over-eagerness get the better of him when a strong result was on the table at his home race in Mexico.
How did the rest look?
We hadn't forgotten about the other half of the grid -- here's a rundown of where we felt the remaining drivers sat after this season.
11. Sergio Perez - See above.
12. Pierre Gasly - A decent first year for Alpine capped with a podium at the Dutch Grand Prix, but found himself stuck in the midfield with the car he had. Gasly's qualifying form against Esteban Ocon puts him just ahead of his teammate.
13. Esteban Ocon - Like Gasly, Ocon's high point was a podium (in Monaco) but ultimately he and the team were unable to replicate some of the high points of previous seasons in what was another tumultuous year behind the scenes.
14. Daniel Ricciardo - After a popular return with AlphaTauri he was unlucky to break his hand at Zandvoort just when he was building momentum. His high point was a superb seventh position finish in Mexico, but he just didn't drive enough races to feature higher.
15. Liam Lawson - The Kiwi impressed as Ricciardo's stand-in and the biggest compliment you can pay to his five-race stint in the car is that he never looked out of place, even at the wet Dutch GP, where he replaced Ricciardo before qualifying. He was unlucky not to be given a full-time race seat and should be on the radar of several teams for 2025.
16. Nico Hulkenberg - Showed no signs of rust after three years away and impressed, when he could, in the sluggish and temperamental Haas car. He comfortably out-qualified teammate Kevin Magnussen across the year.
17. Valtteri Bottas - We know what Bottas can do on a good day but Alfa Romeo's car just wasn't competitive enough for him to show it, finishing the year with just a handful of points to his name.
18. Zhou Guanyu - After a patchy rookie season, Zhou did not kick on in his sophomore season as many would have hoped. He retained his seat for 2024 but will need to produce more consistently to remain beyond that.
19. Lance Stroll - Deserves credit for how he came back from a preseason training injury without missing a race, but was utterly demolished by Fernando Alonso in what was a competitive car for significant chunks of the year. He scored zero podiums to the Spaniard's eight and should have scored a lot more points. Stroll continues to look like the most glaring weakness of the team owned by his father.
20. Kevin Magnussen - Fairly anonymous for most of the year and found himself out-performed by a teammate returning after three years out. Coming off the back of his standout 2022 campaign his season was disappointing.
21. Nyck De Vries - Whether you agreed with his sacking or not, in 11 races De Vries failed to convince Red Bull he had been the right guy to sign for AlphaTauri. Given how his season ended it's impossible to put him anywhere but at the rear end of this list.
22. Logan Sargeant - Was lucky to retain his seat for 2024 and, unlike De Vries, was given a whole season and still did not show signs of major improvement. The Floridian did not out-qualify teammate Alex Albon a single time. Williams pointed to Sargeant's gutsier displays later in the year as a reason for keeping him but he was also lucky by the lack of realistic options at the team's disposal. He is another under huge pressure to perform next year.