Perez's step in to the unknownLaurence Edmondson January 11, 2013
Sergio Perez faces a tough challenge at McLaren this year. In the next two months he has to transform himself from a midfield driver who has shown flashes of brilliance to a rival for the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
In the past it was much easier for a young driver to prepare himself for his debut at a top team. When Lewis Hamilton joined McLaren he did so as a rookie, but a rookie with 10,000 miles of testing behind him. Perez currently has 5,857 race miles to his name, which is not to be sniffed at, but before the opening round of the season in mid March he will have just six test days in his new McLaren. That's not much time to get to know a new car, a new team and help resolve the inevitable teething problems that will become apparent.
He is the first of a new generation of drivers to make it to a top team without the benefit of near-unlimited testing over winter and between races. Vettel, Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber all joined top teams before the testing ban came in at the end of of the 2009 season. Since then testing has been slashed to save costs, and while it is a saving that needs to be made, it has had a negative impact on the opportunities available for young drivers.
Perez and his contemporaries - Pastor Maldonado, Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg, to name just a few - have all had to learn their trade at race weekends. At times that has been a painful experience, especially for Perez and Maldonado, and mistakes that would not have mattered on a test day are exposed for millions of viewers to see. The fact that Perez produced such standout results last year is a testament to his potential, but the to-do list ahead of the first test is long and Perez knows it.
"The most important for me is to get into the rhythm of everything automatically - the steering wheel, all the codes, understanding the set-up of the car and to develop good communication with my engineers," he said on Wednesday. "It's very important that I build my relationship with my engineers and the team so that when we go to the first test I am as familiar as possible with the team. Then when we get to Melbourne I will be well prepared, everything will be automatic and I won't have to think about so many things. The more prepared I can get, the better."
McLaren is doing everything it can to make sure Perez is prepared for the start of the season and the Mexican is spending all of January in Woking with his new team. He was in the team's simulator before his Sauber contract expired (with Sauber's blessing), but even the simulator is a new experience for him.
"We didn't have a simulator at Sauber," he said. "McLaren bases so much on the simulator and it has been a good experience, but obviously it takes a little while to get used to the feeling."
When the McLaren MP4-28 hits the track for the first time at Jerez next month, Perez will have to hope it has none of the early issues the MP4-26 suffered in 2011. Every minute in the cockpit will be vital and he will be expected to deliver feedback to knock further tenths off the car's lap time before Melbourne.
"I think it will take a bit of time with just six days of testing," he said. "You've got to get familiar with the team, but I expect myself to be competitive in Melbourne. The biggest challenge is to win. We are all here to win and that is the challenge we are facing at McLaren.
"When you come to McLaren you are expected to win every race because you are in the best team and if you are not winning there is something wrong. So in that respect I expect more pressure, but as a driver you are looking to be in a top team and to win races and championships."
It's going to be a very steep learning curve, but watching Perez's progress will be just one of many interesting subplots in F1 this year.