MEXICO CITY — Sergio Perez will climb into his Force India car on Sunday at the Mexican Grand Prix and race in front of an adoring home crowd.
For weeks, his face beamed on billboards across this teeming metropolis of 21 million as part of a campaign by local organizers to maximize Mexico’s favourite son in a global racing series.
Yet in some ways, he is all alone.
Perez is the only Latin American driver on the Formula One grid and it could be that way a couple more years. The emerging 2019 lineup is full of European veterans and rookies with only a couple of slots still open.
Which begs the question: What is the future for Latin American drivers in F1?
Perez doesn’t know. He can only hope someone will join him. To do that, they will have to overcome financial barriers and the distance of oceans.
"To reach Formula One, and maintain in Formula One, it’s just hard," Perez said.
Latin America’s history of great drivers is long but long past its prime. Britain’s Lewis Hamilton this week could equal the late Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina with five career championships, second-most in F1 history. Brazil produced champions Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, a lineup that would rival any country in the world. But no Latin American driver has won an F1 championship since Senna in 1991.
There is currently only a handful in the top pipelines to F1. Brazil’s Sergio Sette Camara is the only Latin American driver in Formula 2, where he finished sixth in 2018. Mexico’s Diego Menchaca and Brazil’s Pedro Piquet just completed their rookie seasons in GP3. Colombia’s Tatiana Calderon also competes in GP3.
F1 needs Latin American talent and the drivers need money to thrive in a ridiculously expensive sport, said Stefan Johansson of Sweden, a former F1 driver who raced against Nelson Piquet in the 1980s.
"They have a flair, a high-emotion kind of element around them in racing," Johansson said. "I don’t think the flow of funding from that region is as good as it has been, all the way down into the junior levels. … In the old days, someone with a personal interest in a driver could help financially with a little bit here, a little bit there, but now that little bit is so big."
American Tavo Hellmund, who tried to make it to Formula One as a racer 30 years ago and later created the current U.S. and Mexican grand prix, estimates a driver needs upward of $15 million in personal or corporate sponsorships to support several years through karting and the junior leagues.
"There’s 60 world champions out there who never got their shot because they didn’t have the money behind them," Hellmund said.
Perez had financial backing as a youngster from Mexico’s Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world. So did countryman Esteban Gutierrez, who drove in F1 for three years before losing his seat after the 2016 season.
Slim and his family pumped millions into Escuderia Telmex, a racing team designed to support Mexican drivers. It counts Perez, Gutierrez and NASCAR Xfinity Series 2016 champion Daniel Suarez among its stable of drivers.
Beyond the money, young drivers must join the junior circuits near the Europe-based teams. Perez and Gutierrez left Mexico when they were 15.
"We are the ones who that have to go to Europe at a very young age, sacrifice a lot more than the European drivers," Perez said.
Gutierrez remembers being a scared kid who left Mexico to chase a dream half a world away.
"The heart of Formula One lies in Europe," he said. "To leave all your country behind, to pursue a racing career in Europe, it’s quite a challenge. I was young, far from friends, far from family, to chase a dream. The chances to achieve your dream are very slim."
Most important is talent, said Franz Tost, team principal at Toro Rosso. Toro Rosso has 13 drivers in the last 12 years. His team has not yet finalized its driver lineup for 2019.
Tost doesn’t see much coming from Latin America right now.
"We need these drivers," for F1 to thrive in North and South America, Tost said. "It has nothing to do with the financial package. It’s only a question of performance. As it looks currently, I don’t see it."
Perez has been on average teams whose cars can’t compete for the top spot. But it also has been years since he has shown the brilliance many remember from his earlier career.
Perez was never hotter than he was in 2012, when he finished on the podium three times with Sauber. Back then, he was expected to maybe get a shot at joining Ferrari, where he had been part of the team’s driver academy.
That call never came. Stops at McLaren and Force India did instead.
Perez has had just one podium in each of the past two seasons. His biggest move this year has been to force his struggling team into administration so that a new ownership group could take over.
"For 2019 we are going to be a surprise," Perez said. "We will be closer to victory."
At least he kept his F1 seat.
Gutierrez spent two seasons with Sauber before being released. He was a reserve driver with Ferrari in 2015, watching from the sidelines as fans cheered for Perez when the Mexico City Grand Prix resumed after 23 years.
Haas F1 signed him for its debut season in 2016. He finished 11th five times and was cut. If he had earned just one point, Haas F1 would have brought him back in 2017.
"He was actually a very talented driver. He qualified well," Haas F1 owner Gene Haas said. "At the end of the season, he wasn’t even able to score one point … We just thought his inability to go from 11th to 10th was indicative."
The only other Latin American driver since 2012 was Pastor Maldonado, who raced with Williams and Lotus. He was the first Venezuelan to win a grand prix, with his only career victory in Spain in 2012. He was also frequently penalized for track incidents criticized by fellow drivers as dangerous and has been out of F1 since 2015.
"There are some (drivers) coming up," Perez said. "We’ll see if they reach it or not."