Sergio Perez feels that he has reached "another level" as a driver thanks to his rollercoaster first season with Red Bull, describing his adaptation to the team as a "great challenge".
Having spent the previous seven F1 campaigns with the Force India/Racing Point operation after being dropped by McLaren, Perez was given a chance to return to front-running machinery when Red Bull opted to look outside of their own talent pool for 2021.
A replacement for Alex Albon, who had earlier replaced Pierre Gasly, he would be taking on the much-desired - yet seen by many as cursed - second seat next to Max Verstappen.
It was a baptism of fire for the Mexican, who struggled to match Verstappen's pace over one lap (an average deficit of 0.513 seconds in qualifying) and a Grand Prix distance (scoring less than half of Verstappen's 395.5-point tally), as he attempted to tame the sensitive RB16B.
Perez "had to start from zero" at Red Bull
Looking back on his first season with Red Bull in an exclusive interview with RacingNews365.com, Perez described it as "100 per cent different" to anything else he had experienced across the previous 10 years.
"I think it has been a really challenging year from my side, arriving into such a different team, [with] such a different philosophy," said Perez.
"There are teams in Formula 1 that are closer to each other in terms of driving, in terms of setting up cars, the way you look after the tyres, and here I came to a team that was 100 per cent different – it had very little similarities to what I've done in Formula 1 in the past.
"Basically, I had to start from zero, learn new techniques of setting up the car, of driving the car, and it's been a great challenge. I think it has put me into another level as a driver, [in] that I had to learn a different way of driving.
"The car is unbelievable when it's at its right window. [But] it's very, very challenging to get the tyres and to get the car in that sweet spot – it's not been easy."
Adapting to an Adrian Newey-designed car
Perez expanded on the difficulties he faced in getting to grips with the Adrian Newey-designed RB16B, known for requiring an aggressive driving style.
Asked to recall his first laps in the car, and whether he could feel the difference compared to other F1 machines he had driven, Perez said: "Of course! Straight away [I knew that] it was very, very good.
"It has a certain technique, like every Formula 1 car, if they have a very small window where they operate, and this is the same.
"To find the sweet spot, I think it takes time, and I think [with] the Red Bull more than any other car in the paddock, due to the characteristics of how you have to drive the car."
In addition to the chassis, Perez had to get up to speed with the Honda engine, having only driven Mercedes-powered cars during the turbo-hybrid era.
"It's completely different. The way you apply the power into the Honda is such a different one to the Mercedes," he explained.
"It's been also a very good experience. As a driver, you want to go through very different scenarios of engines, of cars, of tyres and so on, and this has definitely opened up my window a lot."
Ready to find "another gear" in 2022
In a season of extremes, Perez went from the high of winning in Azerbaijan to the low of getting knocked out in Q1 in the Netherlands, as he struggled for consistency with a package that teammate Verstappen found much easier to exploit.
However, across the final third of the campaign, he strung together a trio of podiums in Turkey, the United States and on home soil in Mexico, while also playing a role in Verstappen's title showdown with Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi – putting up a crucial defence against the Mercedes driver midway through the race.
With that late run of form in mind, Perez is confident of finding "another gear" in 2022, when all-new technical regulations will come into play.
"When you come to a team that is already fighting for the title, you see all the mistakes [from a driver], and probably if you're in a team that is under the radar a bit more, you don't see those mistakes as often," he pointed out.
"I think it's just part of the process. But I look forward to take another gear for next year, now that I'm fully adapted with Red Bull."
And despite the ups and downs, there was never any point that Perez feared he might not be back at Red Bull for 2022, having gained the trust of team advisor Helmut Marko and team boss Christian Horner.
"No, I wasn't worried at all. At this stage of my career, it's hard to get worried about not getting a seat," he commented.
"I think we matched really well, really quickly, within the Red Bull family. And very early on, Helmut and Christian told me to not look anywhere else, because they wanted to carry on with me."
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