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Struggling Sergio Perez of Red Bull says return to Mexico his most important race of the season

Sergio Perez was still in Texas when he called the Mexico City Grand Prix his most important race weekend of the season.

He needs the feel of home soil and a warm embrace from a national fan base that adores him.

For a driver who sits second in the standings while racing for a Red Bull team that has already won the constructor’s championship, Perez has had a difficult year: No wins since April, constant criticism that he can’t keep up with teammate Max Verstappen, insensitive remarks about his heritage from a team official, and speculation of a pending retirement or split from the team after this season.

It’s no wonder Perez could use some love right now.

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“I am massively looking forward to my home grand prix,” said Perez, who is also known as “Checo.”

The 33-year-old’s season started well enough with two wins in the first four races. There was even talk of a title chase. Verstappen shut that down by winning 10 races in a row. The Dutch driver now has a record-tying 15 victories this season after winning last week’s United States Grand Prix.

Measured against the three-time champion in the same garage, Perez has all but disappeared. Lewis Hamilton was even threatening to chase him down for second place until the Mercedes driver was disqualified from second in Austin. Perez now leads Hamilton by 39 points with four races remaining.

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Perez has only five podium finishes since May. And while Perez has been part Red Bull’s crushing constructor’s championship, Verstappen is so dominant that he would have Red Bull in first place all by himself.

Thing went from bad to worse in September. Red Bull senior adviser Helmut Marko suggested to a media outlet that Perez’s “South American” heritage could explain a lack of focus or inconsistency from the driver. Perez is from Mexico, which is in North America.

The 80-year-old Marko later apologized publicly and in person to Perez for the remark and the driver seemed to move past it.

But the incident is certainly not forgotten by Perez’s fans. And they remember how important Perez was to Verstappen in the final race of 2021 that won Verstappen’s first championship. “ Checo is a legend,” Verstappen said that day.

“Red Bull has not been fair with him. Red Bull has been a team that hasn’t supported him at all. I think it’s a team that is 100% focused on the other side of the garage and Checo is there, on his own,” said Luis Manuel de la Concha of Mexico City, who was at the race in Austin and will attend the Mexico City Grand Prix as well.

“I believe there has never been justice,” he said.

Mexican fans can cheer for Perez all week. His career wins are the most ever in F1 for a Mexican driver and was instrumental in securing F1’s return to Mexico City in 2015 after 23 years. His photo adorns just about everything in Mexico City this week, from race promotional billboards, television commercials and ads for car insurance and breakfast oats.

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There’s even a special “Checo Menu” at McDonalds: a Big Mac, a soda and two orders of fries.

All of that raises the pressure for a big result Sunday.

Red Bull has dominated the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez with four wins since 2017, all by Verstappen. There were rousing cheers for Perez’s consecutive third-place finishes the last two years, but the home crowd wants more.

Perez’s fans let Red Bull hear it at the U.S. Grand Prix with boos for Verstappen during the post-race podium celebration.

“I don’t think Max is going to get the warmest reception in Mexico,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said this week. “But that’s water off a duck’s back. One year you are the villain, then next year you are a hero.”

Perez asked for respect for the entire team. Verstappen too.

“I want Mexico to come out to support the whole Oracle Red Bull Racing Team, not just me,” he said.

His contract with Red Bull runs through 2024. Horner has said there is no requirement from the team that Perez finish second in the championship to return next year.

Perez insists he’s not leaving the team early, and recently laughed off a rumor that began circulating a few weeks ago that he could retire.

“That really sums up my season. A guy says something about me, then all of a sudden it’s true,” Perez said. “The easiest thing would be to walk out of it. But that’s not me. That’s not who I am.”

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AP freelance writer Alejandra Zuniga in Mexico City contributed.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing