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Perez seals historic podium finish in Malaysia

March 28, 2012

With a second-place finish in Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix, Sergio “Checo” Perez recorded his team’s best ever result and became the first Mexican driver to claim a place on the podium in 41 years.

Perez seemed on the verge of winning his first race in Formula One, but a late mistake left him 2.2 seconds behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.

Nevertheless, it was a remarkable achievement for the Tapatio driver, representing Swiss team Sauber’s highest position since it was founded in 1993. It was also the first time a Mexican driver has finished on the podium since Pedro Rodriguez came second in the Dutch Grand Prix of June 1971.

Seizing the initiative in the wet and wild Malaysian Grand Prix, Perez entered the pits after just two laps to fit wet weather tyres. This enabled him to pull into third place as those ahead of him belatedly followed his lead in changing their tyres.

As heavy rain saturated the circuit, the race endured a 45-minute break after just six laps. Alonso went ahead soon after the restart, establishing an eight-second lead by lap 30, with his Ferrari better suited to the damp race track.

Perez closed on the Spaniard as the surface began to dry, reducing his lead to virtually nothing by lap 40. Alonso gained some respite by switching to dry-weather tyres a lap before Perez, but the Mexican soon closed the gap again.

With just six laps to go, Perez erred, running wide onto the kerb. Alonso reestablished a five-second advantage and although Perez reduced the defecit to just two seconds, he was unable to catch him in time.

Although Perez picked up 18 points in what was his greatest achievement in motorsport to date, he was not entirely satisfied, having missed an opportunity to win.

“I was catching Fernando towards end of the race,” he said. “I knew I had to get him soon because in all the high-speed corners I was losing my front tyres running behind him. Then I ran wide in the quick left-hander. I touched the kerb and I went onto the dirty side of the track. It was completely wet and I lost the win.”

He added: “The win was possible for me today but unfortunately I could not manage it.” Perez also paid tribute to Sauber, saying “the team have done an incredible job. They called me [into the pits] always at the right time.”

The respect was mutual. “The driver was incredible,” said team owner Peter Sauber. “For me it’s a miracle he can stay in front of all the big boys … It’s important for him that he can stay with us and he can develop quietly.”

Perez’s impressive form has heightened speculation linking him with a move to Ferrari, whose Brazilian driver Felipe Massa has struggled in the opening two races. Perez is a member of Ferrari’s driver academy, but he was quick to quash talk of a mid-season switch: “Obviously it’s only rumours but no, I will stay with Sauber for the whole season.”

With 22 points from the opening two races, Perez sits fifth in the championship standings. Alonso leads the pack with 35 points.

The race in Asia took place in the early hours of Sunday morning in Mexico, although it was rebroadcast later that day. Afterwards, Perez said “I think that they are sleeping in Mexico, so when they wake up they are going to be shocked. I am leaving to go to Mexico now, so I am going to party there.”

After a 37-hour journey, Perez finally returned home to Guadalajara on Monday afternoon. To the strains of mariachi  music, he received a hero’s welcome at the airport from friends, family, fans and the media.

“I come to Mexico to see my people and my family, and to be with my friends. Also I will start my preparation for the next races because there is still a long season ahead,” said Perez upon arrival. He can now enjoy a well earned break ahead of his next race in China on April 15.

See a season preview here and a report on the opening Grand Prix here.

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