Upon my first visit to Mexico City for the Mexican Grand Prix, one of the most immediate and impressive signs that Formula 1 was in town came courtesy of an enormous billboard in support of Sergio Perez close to the airport.

Towering over the motorway, it was a clear sign – if it was needed – of who the favourite was for the race weekend. This is Perez territory.

In case that wasn’t enough for you, you can’t escape it once on-track running begins and fans pack out the grandstands. The noise each time Perez passes through Foro Sol is huge; a roar of Mexican fans, passionate for F1, passionate for their hero.

The feeling is mutual. In a year that has seen SportPesa Racing Point sit towards the rear of the midfield, offering little chance of a repeat of his podium heroics from seasons past, you could forgive Perez for writing the season off. But to him, a lot of whether 2019 will be remembered as a good year or a bad year depends on his home race.

“It’s the race that I enjoy the most,” Perez told Crash.net. “It’s a weekend that I want to be perfect in all areas. It’s a lot of commitments, it’s quite a long weekend for me, but it’s definitely the highlight of my year.

“To have a good or bad year, it really depends on how I do in Mexico.”

Heading into the race on Sunday, Perez would fancy his chances of bringing home some points. He may have dropped out in Q2, but by qualifying 11th, he has a free choice of starting tyre – something that could offer a greater advantage that usual given the struggles most have faced so far this weekend.

It would mark a welcome return to the points for Perez, whose retirement at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez last year marked his first failure to come home in the top 10 at his home grand prix, which returned to the calendar in 2015.

The 23-year absence of Mexico prior to the revival of the race covered all but two years of Perez’s life. He was just the fifth Mexican driver to race in F1, himself ending a 30-year gap since Hector Rebaque made his final appearance in 1981.

Without a Mexican driver to look up to in F1, Perez instead followed Juan Pablo Montoya as a Latin American – but he now sees the significance of being a home figure for his country to follow.

“I think for Mexicans to have a driver they can identify with and they can support, it’s quite an important thing,” said Perez. “At the time that I was growing up, it was IndyCar, never Formula 1. We had a lot of Mexicans in IndyCar, and IndyCar was big in Mexico.

“But I wanted to make it into Formula 1. Since a very young age, I knew that it was going to be very hard. I had to go and race in Europe, so it was quite a big challenge.”

Perez moved to Europe at a young age knowing little English and very few people, eager to make it in junior formulae and succeed where Mexicans had struggled to in the past. His hope is that his story, combined with the success of the Mexican Grand Prix, can help inspire the next generation of young Mexican drivers.

“Obviously there is only so much I can do,” Perez said. “At the end of the day, the new generations ahead, they’ve got to realise that it’s bloody hard to make it as a Mexican in Formula 1, to be successful in this world. It’s not easy.

“It’s them who have to make the difference, and get on with it. It’s going to be bloody hard - pretty much impossible. There’s very little chance, so they just have to go for it.

“I see there are some in the younger series, some coming up closer, but it’s just important to have that determination and realise that it’s going to be bloody hard.”

“But of course, they can look at me and see that it’s possible.”

Perez is hopeful of finding a driver to whom he can pass the baton of being the driver who stokes the biggest cheers from the Foro Sol in years to come.

“It will be very sad, because there will be a time when I will stop in Formula 1,” Perez said.

“Not having a Mexican driver will be sad. So I hope that soon we have another Mexican here.”

In the meantime, Perez is going to soak up the adoration of the Mexican fans at one of the highlight events of the season – but he is not losing sight of how far it has come.

“It’s just amazing how big it is,” Perez said. “It’s been the best race for the last couple of years. I just think that it will keep getting better.

“There are a lot more fans. It’s been like that since day one really. I think Formula 1 has really excited Mexico, people just love it there.”

 

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