When Marcus Ericsson and Sergio Perez lined up on the same Formula 1 grid for the last time, the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix they were 12th and 14th. They are, in their own ways, great examples of drivers who had a ‘pay driver’ label attached to them early on and never shook it. Even when they performed well.
On Sunday the same two drivers won the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix respectively, just a few hours apart. Not bad for a couple of pay drivers, to paraphrase Marcus after Indy! I was happy for Marcus in a way I rarely am when I see a driver win a race. I don’t mind saying that I watch IndyCar to follow him and Felix Rosenqvist. It’s the only time I support a driver, which is a fun experience and something I’ve not had for a very long time.
It actually reminds me of being a young fan in the early/mid-2000s, watching ChampCar races to follow Justin Wilson, or following the DTM to see how Gary Paffett and Jamie Green were doing. When I was younger I had a fierce interest in watching Brits abroad. I guess that’s how I feel about the Swedes now.
Marcus and I are not close friends by any means, and I would not like to pretend otherwise. We bumped into each other again at the Miami Grand Prix, where he was back in the F1 paddock as a guest, and had a little catch up. I also may have got over-excited on Sunday, while still in the media centre in Monaco, and sent him a message on WhatsApp within moments of him crossing the finish line… But I’m pleased to have a good professional relationship with him, which is ultimately the foundation for why I care about how he’s doing in IndyCar.
I attended my first races as an F1 journalist in 2017 and began working full-time in 2018, which turned out to be Marcus’s last season in F1. Unfortunately, the way the media in F1 works is ruthlessly meritocratic (I’d say arrogant, too). If you’re not winning, you’re not the top priority. If you’re not top 10, you’re not worth the time at all.
So as the new person, I was often despatched to media sessions at the ‘lesser’ teams. And I’m really glad I was because there are great people to meet and interesting stories to be told if you don’t have the blinkers on. One of the worst things an aspiring F1 journalist can do, in my opinion, is decide that only the big teams matter.
So, I probably spoke to Marcus most Thursdays and Sundays in 2018 and was probably responsible for the majority of the Ericsson-related content on Autosport at the time. I don’t mind admitting I have a soft spot for the people who entertained talking to me when I was a ‘cub’ F1 reporter. People like Marcus had no idea who I was at first but were still respectful and generous with their time.
That sort of thing leaves a lasting impression. And while I think Marcus had a decent go at F1, and it was fair to replace him for 2019, I also think he was better than he got credit for. So, it’s great to see him with a new lease of life in IndyCar, where he’s adapted so impressively to ovals and seems to be better suited to that car on their road courses than maybe he was to F1.
As for Perez, I’ve felt for a couple of years that there’s been a lingering, slightly negative perception of him that people formed very early on and have stuck to in the absence of the facts. His tyre-whispering qualities are well known but Perez is also a faster driver – and a better racer wheel-to-wheel – than most people seem to think. He showed that more at Racing Point in 2020, when they copied the 2019 Mercedes and had a great season. This year he’s proving that at Red Bull consistently, having shown it in glimpses last year as well.
It’s as though Perez’s brief and difficult year with McLaren in 2013 made a lot of people’s minds up about him: a good midfield driver but unworthy of a top seat. Well, he’s now won in each of the three seasons in a car capable of winning a race (that Racing Point counts because while he needed some good fortune, it was seriously rapid on its day, and anything that wasn’t a Mercedes in 2020 had to rely on unusual circumstances to win). Which is quite telling.
Perez, like Ericsson, has worked very hard to get to this place in his career. And while both relied on funding to get certain opportunities, they had to earn that backing in the first place. That’s something the critics often forget. As it stands, two drivers who were colleagues in the F1 midfield are now winners of two of the most prestigious events in world motorsport. Ericsson leads the IndyCar series and Perez is third in the F1 standings.
That really is not bad for a couple of pay drivers.