‘Grand responsibility’: How Checo Pérez became Mexico’s sporting hero

If he’s being honest, Sergio ‘Checo’ Pérez doesn’t like the comparison.

The veteran Formula One driver doesn’t like to be held up against other prominent Mexican athletes, who – with the exception of him – have largely disappointed this year.

“You have to give credit to the athletes who try, who get up every morning whether or not the results come in at the end of the day,” Pérez recently said in Spanish. “But I think as Mexicans, we have to rid ourselves of the idea of who is better, who is worse, and always looking to pit Mexican athletes against each other.”

Nonetheless, he grasps that sports fans in his home country of 129m – eternally grappling with sometimes incomprehensible levels of poverty, violence and gubernatorial corruption – see him as perhaps their best hope to deliver whatever competitive glory may come in 2022.

Mexican boxer Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez fell off the top of his sport’s pound-for-pound rankings after losing a decision to Dmitry Bivol in the light heavyweight division amid celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a famous victory over a French army in 1862.

Despite securing a berth for the upcoming Fifa World Cup in Qatar, the men’s national soccer team failed to defeat continental rivals USA or Canada during qualifying, putting into doubt whether the squad can hang with the global elite. And the men’s U-20s failed to qualify for that age category’s world championship, shaking confidence that there’s youthful prospects waiting in the wings to return Mexico to regional – let alone international – prominence.

Yet Pérez, 32, has interrupted the steady drumbeat of underachievement. In his second season with Red Bull Racing, he secured his first-ever pole position at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix before picking up his third victory in F1 by topping the field at the legendary street circuit of Monaco.

Video clips of his post-Monaco celebration – dancing on an opulent yacht with his arms around the waist of a blonde Ukrainian fashion model who was not his wife, before stumbling around as he disembarked the boat – spurred a tabloid controversy.

He felt compelled to issue a public apology to his wife and fans acknowledging “a bad party that [he] didn’t know how to control”, somewhat dampening news that Red Bull had chosen to extend him as reigning F1 champion Max Verstappen’s teammate through 2024.

Pérez, however, bounced back. He finished second only to Verstappen at the following race in Azerbaijan, securing his fifth podium of the season and helping Red Bull gash open an 80-point lead in the constructors’ championship over second-place Ferrari. Mechanical problems then prevented him from finishing at the Canadian Grand Prix, but he was preparing to enter Sunday’s race at England’s mythical Silverstone circuit trailing only Verstappen in the world driver’s championship.

Verstappen’s 46-point lead over Pérez is commanding, and pundits doubt Red Bull would really allow Pérez to jeopardize his Dutch teammate’s bid at a second title. But publicly at least, team chief Christian Horner has said it doesn’t matter which of his drivers clinches the individual championship as long as he’s in a Red Bull car and the team can wrest away the team title from Mercedes, winners the last eight years running.

Pérez told the Guardian he’s proceeding as if Horner’s words were genuine – and believes they are.

“Both championships are very important to me,” said Pérez, whose team hasn’t won a constructors’ title since its fourth consecutive one in 2013. “And we’re in a great position for both right now, even if it’s important to remember the season is long and everything can change so fast.”

Whatever happens, Pérez realizes even that tenuous spot was never guaranteed. He still remembers the restlessness that came when was in the midst of setting the record for most F1 starts without a win: 190, during the first 10 seasons of his career.

He finally snapped that ignominious streak late in the 2020 campaign, winning for Racing Point at the Sakhir Grand Prix, which that season’s champion Lewis Hamilton missed due to illness and after Pérez dropped to last after an early crash that knocked out two drivers.

“I just knew it was important not to quit, to keep working, to keep looking for that big team that would give me the chance,” Pérez said.

Red Bull was that big team, pairing him with Verstappen in 2021 in the only car that could fight with Mercedes each round, after a series of drivers couldn’t cut it as the team’s No 2.

Pérez, in part, responded by winning his second F1 race in just his sixth outing with Red Bull, along with four other podium finishes.

Another highlight that is almost certain to stand the test of time was his erasing of a seven-second gap between Verstappen and Hamilton in the campaign’s finale in Abu Dhabi, which was key in positioning the former to pass the latter during the race’s controversial, championship-deciding last lap.

He said he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in surpassing the late Pedro Rodriguez as Mexico’s winningest F1 driver. He said dreams of becoming the first Mexican to win his country’s Grand Prix this fall – after finishing third there last year – burn brighter than ever.

Pérez is quick to note that he’s not the only racecar driver from Mexico to be etching a name for himself in autosport. He said he’s relished each of Patricio ‘Pato’ O’Ward’s wins for Arrow McLaren in IndyCar, along with his second-place finish at the famed Indianapolis 500 on the same day Pérez ensured the notes of their national anthem blared in Monaco.

He said he did the same when Mexican-born Nascar driver Danny Suarez scored his maiden victory at Sonoma on 12 June – on the same day their countryman Roberto González helped Jota Sport top the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

But Pérez knows F1 is the peak of his profession. And for now, he knows only he can determine whether or not his sports-obsessed home country can savor a constructors’ championship or – why not? – a driver’s title.

“It’s a grand responsibility,” Pérez said. “But it’s very special to be representing your country to the world at the highest level.”