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Analysis - Perez: harshly treated or wrong man for McLaren?

McLaren Formula One driver Sergio Perez of Mexico drives during the qualifying session of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circ
McLaren Formula One driver Sergio Perez of Mexico drives during the qualifying session of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circ

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Sergio Perez arrived at McLaren in January desperate for success, talking of fighting for wins and Formula One titles, and less than a year later the Mexican will walk away with his goals more distant than ever.

Questions will be asked about whether the 23-year-old was ever the right man for McLaren, a driver signed in a hurry late last year when 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton decided to jump ship and join Mercedes.

There will be others, particularly in Mexico, who will wonder just how much of a chance he was really given to prove himself.

Formula One is a cruel arena, a world where harsh commercial realities stamp on sentiment, but Perez might have expected more time after being handed one of the worst racing cars McLaren have built in decades.

He arrived at Woking as the first Mexican in more than 40 years with a real chance of winning a grand prix. At mid-table Sauber, he had finished on the podium three times last year.

Ferrari, who had brought him up through their academy, had said he was not ready for them as a replacement for Felipe Massa but McLaren thought otherwise and snapped him up to fill Hamilton's shoes.

"We undoubtedly believe we can develop him into a world champion in fairly short order," team principal Martin Whitmarsh told reporters at the time.

More ominously, in retrospect, he added: "You come to McLaren and you've got the scrutiny and the pressure. And you either do well and survive, or he will struggle.

"You ask me if we are 100 percent sure that he's the right man for us - I can't be."

Had McLaren been able to offer Perez a winning car, the marriage might have lasted. Instead, with their worst since 1980 bringing an unexpected tension into the team, it has ended in divorce.

In a dignified and restrained statement posted on Twitter in English and Spanish on Wednesday, Perez made clear he had been shown the door but thanked the team for giving him the opportunity to drive for them.

"I will always be a fan of McLaren," he said. "In the meanwhile, I will be looking at my future to ensure my position in the best possible package to fight for wins."

PRETTY SPECIAL

He is now expected to be replaced by 21-year-old Danish hotshot Kevin Magnussen, winner of the Renault 3.5 series title and a McLaren protégé whose performance has turned heads.

Whitmarsh has described the Dane as "pretty special" and "lightning quick" and reports from Woking have suggested his performances in the simulator have backed up the belief.

McLaren took a risk with Hamilton and it paid off handsomely. The possibility that Magnussen could be another such talent is incentive enough to give him the nod over Perez.

The fact that the sport is going through significant change next season, with all the drivers having to come to terms with a new V6 turbocharged engine, also makes it arguably a better time to bring in a rookie than if the rules were stable.

Sometimes it works and sometimes not. McLaren signed Kimi Raikkonen in 2002 with just one season under his belt at Sauber and they knew immediately he was special. They took Perez after two seasons at Sauber and clearly the feeling has been different.

The last driver to stay for only a year at McLaren was Spaniard Fernando Alonso, a double world champion when he joined for what proved a stormy 2007 season alongside Hamilton.

Alonso fell out with the team principal Ron Dennis, and found it hard to accept that Hamilton - a rookie - could be given equal treatment to him.

However, McLaren stuck with Finland's Heikki Kovalainen for two seasons, even though he was never in Hamilton's league on the racetrack.

In their first season together in 2008, when McLaren had a title-winning car, Kovalainen scored 53 points to Hamilton's 98. Perez has scored 35 so far to Button's 60 and both have had fifth places, the team's best result so far this year.

When Perez was signed, some saw it heralding a move by Telmex - the fixed-line telephone company owned by the world's richest man Carlos Slim that has backed him throughout his career - to replace Vodafone as title sponsors.

For whatever reason, the talk of incoming Mexican money has died away while Mexico's return to the grand prix calendar now looks unlikely to happen until 2015 after being listed provisionally for next year.

McLaren meanwhile are on the cusp of a new era with an engine partnership with Honda starting up from 2015. The future for them, at least, looks bright.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)

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