Sergio Perez bounced back to form with fourth at the São Paulo Grand Prix.
The Mexican driver was unlucky to finish ninth in qualifying as a combination of a freak storm and yellow flags after an off for McLaren's Oscar Piastri at Junção masked his true performance.
But a spirited fight through the top 10 looked like it would pay off with a return to the podium after Perez overtook Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso on the penultimate lap, only for the Spaniard to reverse the positions on the final tour.
Whilst Perez was ultimately denied silverware, was this the drive that saved his Red Bull career?
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Perez's struggles this year
Perez's struggles across the season have been well-documented.
A championship battle with teammate Max Verstappen looked on the cards after two victories and a win in the Azerbaijan Sprint across the first four rounds, yet the wheels quickly fell off his wagon.
Verstappen's win in Miami from ninth on the grid, where Perez started from pole, felt like a turning point in terms of confidence and those trembles were only intensified with a crash in Monaco Grand Prix Q1.
From there, Perez went five rounds without a Q3 appearance in a car that was clearly the dominant force of the field.
Since the summer break, a rare glimpse of optimism with second at the Italian Grand Prix dissipated with incidents and mistakes in Singapore, Japan and Qatar. The United States Grand Prix was on the whole more solid, yet nothing inspiring as he finished fourth - only after a disqualification for Lewis Hamilton.
But a home return at the Mexico City Grand Prix saw Perez back on pace with teammate Verstappen and, whilst only qualifying fifth, there were to be no complaints over his performance.
Any work that was done to repair confidence through Friday and Saturday at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was instantly thrown out the window when Perez swung into Turn 1 alongside Verstappen and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc - the resultant contact leaving him out of the race.
That really summed up his season: a strong start quickly turning sour.
Criticism from Horner and Marko
Scrutiny around Perez's position with Red Bull has been rife, no doubt unaided by the Milton Keynes-based outfit's history of drivers being swapped in and out of the second seat alongside Verstappen.
To make matters worse for him, the screw has been turned by Team Principal Christian Horner and Motorsport Advisor Helmut Marko on numerous occasions.
After picking up penalties in Qatar, Horner explained: “We have to talk to Checo after the race about why he had such a hard time with track limits.
“It was a tough race and a tough weekend for him. Luckily, Lewis didn’t score any points, and Fernando didn’t score much either.
“So he’s still second [in the standings]. He desperately needs to find his form again.”
Criticism directed towards Perez saw Hamilton take aim at the treatment dished out, whilst Marko was forced into an apology over xenophobic remarks when discussing why his driver was struggling for form.
The Austrian has suggested Perez lacked focus because of his South American ethnicity, even though Mexico is in North America - so wrong in more ways than one.
Criticism has cooled in recent races but, with Daniel Ricciardo's double return piling on the pressure even more, scrutiny remains.
I am absolutely confident and clear that Checo will be our driver next year.
Horner reassurance over next season
Whilst the criticism and urge for improvement has been free-flowing, Horner and Marko have continuously reassured Perez that his seat is confirmed next season.
A contract exists through to the end of next season and, at least publically, the team insists it will be honoured. In Brazil, Horner insisted he was "absolutely confident and clear" that Perez will be alongside Verstappen next term.
Whilst we must take this as gospel, it doesn't take too much to remember that Alex Albon was in the same position - with the same reassurances - entering the climax of the 2020 season before he was replaced by Perez.
Rumours suggest that retaining second in the Drivers' standings over Hamilton is not necessarily enough to determine whether he will stay, rather his level of performance comparative to Verstappen race to race.
Sergio Perez 2023 F1 results
|Race||Finishing Position [Sprint]||Points [Sprint]|
|Bahrain Grand Prix||2nd||18|
|Saudi Arabian Grand Prix||1st||25|
|Australian Grand Prix||5th||11|
|Azerbaijan Grand Prix||1st [1st]||25 |
|Miami Grand Prix||2nd||18|
|Monaco Grand Prix||16th||0|
|Spanish Grand Prix||4th||12|
|Canadian Grand Prix||6th||9|
|Austrian Grand Prix||3rd [2nd]||15 |
|British Grand Prix||6th||8|
|Hungarian Grand Prix||3rd||15|
|Belgian Grand Prix||2nd [DNF]||18 |
|Dutch Grand Prix||4th||12|
|Italian Grand Prix||2nd||18|
|Singapore Grand Prix||8th||4|
|Japanese Grand Prix||DNF||0|
|Qatar Grand Prix||10th [DNF]||1 |
|United States Grand Prix||4th [5th]||12 |
|Mexico City Grand Prix||DNF||0|
|São Paulo Grand Prix||4th [3rd]||12 |
Why Brazil performance matters
With that in mind, it was imperative that Perez bounced back in Brazil. In fact, after the heartache of Mexico, it would have been easy to crumble under the pressure.
But instead he was fast out of the blocks on Friday, was solid in the sole practice session and was on pace with Verstappen before circumstances played against him in qualifying.
An admittedly poor start in the Sprint left Perez burning up his tyres fighting the two Mercedes, though he did decisively return to third by the end of the 24-lap event.
The race was a triumphant return for Perez as he rose through the top 10 - his final gap to Verstappen and Norris ahead skewed rather by his battles within a DRS train behind Hamilton in the early stages.
His command over the brake pedal on Sunday was akin to his teammate's as he scythed his way past both the Silver Arrows.
The final-stint-long battle with Alonso was scintillating and, whilst ultimately missing out on the podium, it proved Perez could race with the best - and cleanly at that.
He was beaming after the race. It felt like a statement drive and one that could be the stamp of approval on his retention for next year.