It was a superb performance from the Mexican, who managed his tyres in the opening laps and, after going long, was able to deploy sufficient pace to jump three cars after his pitstop.
However, it was also a question of what might have been had he qualified closer to teammate Max Verstappen, rather than seven places behind the Dutchman.
Qualifying remains an Achilles Heel for Perez in 2021 as he continues to find his way with the RB16B. Second on the grid in round two at Imola suggested early progress, but subsequently he has struggled.
In Monaco, things looked promising after he got through Q2 in fifth place, but when it mattered in Q3, things unravelled.
“It was a disaster,” he explained. “We were making good progress through qualifying, and in Q2, we did a good step. But the track was cooling down, and we changed our approach into Q3, run one, and I had no front end at all.
“They were very cold, the tyres. And then on the second attempt, the lap was going well until I hit a lot of traffic. And I basically lost a lot of lap time going through that.
“I certainly should have improved what I did in Q2 by a tenth or two. So that will be a 10.8, so probably P6. Not a lot better, but it is what it is.”
Instead, he found himself stranded in ninth, a frustrating 0.997s away from his teammate.
On Sunday, a non-start for Charles Leclerc gifted Perez a place, and after getting round Ste Devote safely in eighth it was a question of being patient and playing the long game.
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Erik Junius
The team knew the only way to make progress would be to run further than those ahead and then bang in some quick laps, and to make it work Perez had to employ his famous tyre management skills and extend the life of his softs as much as possible.
Sitting behind Sebastian Vettel in the opening stint he did just that, dropping back and leaving a gap that he could close at will when he needed to.
“Tyres are looking good at this stage, just keep the life for when we need it,” he was told by engineer Hugh Bird as the pitstops approached.
Of the guys he was racing Hamilton in sixth was the first to stop on lap 29, followed by Pierre Gasly on lap 30 and Vettel on lap 31. Perez then received the message, “OK Free air, let’s enjoy it.”
It was now his old softs versus the new hards of those who had pitted. He banged in a superb lap in 1m14.552s (at the time the fastest by anyone) and then did a 1m14.670s. He was now some two seconds faster than the pace he had been running at shortly before.
Asking, “how is it?,” he was told by Bird: “This pace is good, took three-tenths out of Seb in sector one, five-tenths in sector two.”
On lap 33 Red Bull brought leader Verstappen in – a move that ensured that he was out of Perez’s way just as the Mexican needed to bang in those quick laps. As Max emerged from the pit lane, Perez swept past to claim the lead, albeit briefly.
“How are the tyres?,” he was asked by Bird. “I’m losing the a bit the rear left,” he responded.
That was a trigger for the stop. He was called in at the end of lap 34, having gone three laps longer than Vettel, and he emerged from the pits safely ahead of the German’s Aston Martin – and two other cars that he had been racing. The retirement of Bottas provided another boost.
He soon received the news: “OK Checo, good job, currently sitting P4, we’ve got the jump on Vettel, Gasly and Hamilton.”
After digesting the info over the next couple of corners, he asked, “Who’s next?”
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Perhaps wary that Perez was getting a little ahead of himself, given that Lando Norris was some eight seconds up the road, Bird tried to calm things down: “Just manage the fuel from here, let’s have a bit of lift and coast, got Vettel behind at two seconds.”
In fact over the final 44 laps after his stop Perez successfully closed down on Norris. Getting past relied on a mistake from the McLaren man, but none came, and at the flag the gap was just over a second.
After the post-flag chat between Perez and Horner, Bird summed up the drive: “You did a great job of saving the tyres for when we needed them, made it work when we got the clear air from Vettel.”
It was a great race for Perez, and his fourth place helped to ensure that Red Bull took the lead of the constructors’ championship. However, he was keeping his feet on the ground.
“I’m pleased with the result,” he said. “I think when we go to Abu Dhabi, nobody will remember this race. It’s all about the championship. It’s such a long championship that minimising the bad days and coming out strong of a bad day is going to be key.
“And today, we managed to do that. And it just shows that the pace is there on Sunday, I just have to sort out my Saturday.”
Perez admitted that there was still some frustration about his starting position given the speed he was able to show in the race.
“I think it’s just a part of my adaptation, like you see with other drivers. It’s a very unique season in that regard. Drivers changing teams, normally in the past, hasn’t been such a big thing.
“But this year, with so many variables out there, it has made it harder.”
He conceded that Imola was something of a false dawn in terms of qualifying form, and that he hasn’t been able to match that since.
“Yeah, to be honest, considering that at Imola I managed to put it on the second row, in my second race, already in such a difficult track. But the progression hasn’t come on Saturdays. It’s just the variables. Whenever there is a little variable I’m not fully at home with the car yet, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Azerbaijan is next, a one-off track where anything can happen, and where Perez finished third in 2018.
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Baku is not a typical track, and thus what will be more useful for Perez’s learning curve will be the three-race run in France and Austria, especially with two events in a row at the latter venue.
“I think that will be very, very, very important going to more places, especially Austria. Doing two weekends at a Grand Prix that would really speed up my learning.”
On the positive side the team is fully behind him, but he knows better than anyone that he has to start scoring better. Thus far he’s earned two fourths and two fifths – sadly the strong qualifying performance at Imola spiralled into a frustrating 11th – but it’s not enough.
After Monaco Red Bull leads Mercedes by 149 to 148 in the constructors’ championship, and Perez has to make a consistently bigger contribution.
“I think he’s finding Saturdays harder than Sundays,” said Horner after the flag. “His race pace has generally been very, very strong. So I think Saturdays, we need to work with him to help him to get comfortable, but that will come.
“You can see the majority of drivers, probably with the exception of Carlos [Sainz] that have changed teams this year, it’s taken them a while to get up to speed. I think the tyres are more tricky as well this year, that throws in another dynamic. But he’s getting there, and a performance like today helps that.
“Checo has driven some great races this year. In Bahrain, he was very strong. His race pace last race in Barcelona was very strong. His race pace in Portimao was good.
“So there’s no there’s no doubt about that, he’s just got to qualify in position, and then he’ll be a factor.”