LONDON (Reuters) - Despite turning up at the factory front door in a bright orange McLaren sportscar, and receiving a standing ovation from the team’s 500-strong staff, Sergio Perez struggled to comprehend just how much his lifestyle had changed.
“I think it didn’t hit me yet,” the 22-year-old Mexican grinned in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday after his first day at work with the perennial Formula One title contenders.
“It takes some time to realize that you are driving for the best team in the world, that you are part of the best team,” said the man recruited as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement and obviously enjoying some of the perks of the job.
“This is very easy to get used to,” laughed ‘Checo’ of the 195,000 pound ($312,200) McLaren MP4-12C Spider that he used to make his entry. “I think the real changes are coming in terms of pressure, results, work.”
Perez is right on that. For the past two years he has been with Sauber, a tidy mid-table Swiss team who make the most of their resources without generating too much excitement.
McLaren are in another dimension, even if Perez sometimes beat both their drivers last season on his way to three podium finishes.
The first Mexican in more than 40 years with a chance of winning a grand prix, Perez knows his nation expects as much if not more than McLaren.
Hamilton’s are huge shoes to fill but the man Perez will be measured against above all is team mate Jenson Button, the silky smooth and experienced 2009 world champion who won the first and last races of 2012.
McLaren was also the team of the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna, a triple champion revered around the world, and greats like Frenchman Alain Prost and Britain’s James Hunt.
“To be part of the team Ayrton did history with is very special. I hope one day my name can be next to those champions,” said the man who was born in 1990, the year of Senna’s second title with McLaren.
Without a point in his last six races and yet to celebrate a victory, Perez negotiated the immediate pitfalls faced by any newcomer when being grilled by the media, emphasizing his respect for Button and how much he hoped to learn from him.
At the same time - speaking confidently but without arrogance - he made clear he would be disappointed not to beat the Briton and hoped to be fighting for wins from the start and be in the running for the title.
“The target is not to score points or podiums, the target is to win, to fight for wins and to win the championship because when you come to McLaren you have got the opportunity to do it,” said the Mexican.
Button is the familiar face at Woking but Perez said he too had felt the warmth from the moment he walked through the glass doors of the futuristic factory as an official team driver.
“It has been incredible to finally wear the kit, to finally be with the team. Today I met the whole team, completely, everybody, so it was a very special day. I think the season has started for us,” said the Mexican, who had also visited the facility last year while still under contract to Sauber.
”It makes me feel very proud to be part of such a great family, everybody is so warm - such a close family. And everybody enjoys, loves working for McLaren.
”It’s unbelievable to realize that all these people are working for you, for the same target, to give you the very best opportunity to win because everybody at the factory is hungry for winning. This is something you feel as soon as you walk in to the factory.
“I‘m really motivated. I am so much looking forward and this is a great opportunity for me to show what I can do in a top team.”
Button is a Monaco resident but Perez said he intended to continue living in Switzerland, making visits to the factory when needed but cutting down on trips home to Mexico to spare himself jetlag.
”I won’t move to the UK,“ he said. ”But I will be here very often with the team, close to the team.
“My main responsibility and my main goal is to win races, to be 100 percent fit...so it’s extremely important to reduce the travelling as much as possible and be focused on the team.”
Perez said he had not spoken to Button since last year but expected to get on well with him.
“I think he’s quite a nice guy, a very open guy as well, like me. He’s always with his family around, a bit like me as well, so I expect to have a good relationship with him although you never know. But I see Jenson as a very open guy.”
Hamilton had a special relationship with Ron Dennis, the former team principal who served as mentor throughout his early career and is now McLaren chairman.
If anyone is going to be a father figure to Perez at McLaren, it will be Dennis’s successor Martin Whitmarsh who welcomed him with a handshake and warm words on Wednesday.
“Maybe. He is old enough to be,” smiled Perez. “I see him as a good friend, I have a lot of trust in him.”
Editing by Alison Wildey