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Perez: “the most crucial year of my career”

Thursday, 19 February. Force India rolls its car out of its Barcelona garage at the second pre-season testing session of 2015. Except it isn’t its 2015 car. The 2014 VJM07 has proven to have exceptional life expectancy by clocking laps well beyond its one-year life expectancy, albeit as a glorified tyre test car.

The 2015 VJM08 won’t be ready for another week yet; the team marks the delay down to suppliers struggling with the non-payment and eventual demise of Caterham and Marussia. Whatever the reason, it sets up a far from ideal environment for the plucky midfield squad.

When the 2015 car is eventually put through its paces, urgency is temporarily replaced with relief. In a single four-day session, the car chalks up 365 kilometres of running without any major problems.

But relief can only be short lived. Each of Force India’s rivals came away from the pre-season with three times more running time. Even if the car races as reliably as it tested, the team is starting on the back foot.

“We got really limited time, but we are optimistic,” said Sergio Perez. “We’re really looking forward to trying to do a good job this year. That’s our objective; to try to be as good as we possibly can and to try to take any advantage offered to us.

“That [three days] was crucial for us and important to be able to get at least one day in the car to know how it works

“At the moment we are a step or two behind the competition, but let’s see where we end up — it’s early days.”

Force India is in the unenviable position of carrying over much of its pre-season testing regime into the season proper. For Perez and his team, the flyaway rounds have become a de facto test bench.

“It will take some time to complete testing for us, but let’s be optimistic and hope we can have a good first couple of races and score some points.

“The most important thing is that I can adapt myself well to a new car. It’s more driveable and more powerful as well. Let’s hope we can do a solid job with it.”

For Perez, a backwards step is not an option. The end of 2015 will mark his half-decade in Formula One, and since 2011 his career has rocketed him from Sauber to McLaren, before internal ructions at Woking forced him out and into the arms of Force India.

“I’m thankful that this happened,” said Perez last year after being cut adrift by McLaren and finding a home beside Nico Hülkenberg at the Indian-owned team, but 2015 is no year to rely on miracles.

“It’s a very important year. It’s my fifth year in Formula One. It’s a crucial year for my career,” he said.

“The objectives definitely change. When you have a second opportunity with the same team, when you get to know the people, the engineers, and the car, you are much better prepared than when you were the year before. In that respect it changes.

“I want to do better than I have done before — that objective hasn’t changed.”

Last year highlighted some of Perez’s best and worst driving traits. Look no further than his superb podium under lights in Bahrain, but likewise his ugly collision with Felipe Massa barely two months late in Canada.

There can be no excuses for such inconsistency this year.

“I want to improve on what I did last year,” he said. “I want to improve everything: the qualifying, the race, there’s always something you can learn and something you can improve.

“You have to be open to always improving.”

He could hope for few better bars against which to measure himself than the man on the other side of the garage. Nico Hülkenberg, whether in the second Force India or the Sauber or Williams cars, has proved a formidable opponent for any driver.

Despite this, frontrunning teams — including McLaren — have repeatedly overlooked the German for an opportunity to prove himself with the big boys, yet his 2014 results show he soundly beat his teammate, scoring 37 more points than Perez over the course of the season.

But for Sergio, there must be only positives if he’s to overcome Nico this year.

“When you get to know a new driver, you get to know a new way of working: the way he drives and so on. It’s always good to have some different parameters.”

Hülkenberg got the jump on Perez in Melbourne, where the German finished a contented seventh while his teammate languished in an unedifying battle with Jenson Button at the very back of the pack.

But the season is long, Perez’s resolve to prove his doubters wrong in his fifth year is steely.

“You have to be open to always improving,” he reiterated.

“It’s not about where you start, it’s where you end up.”

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