Melbourne: Sauber rookie Sergio Perez is on track to not only become Mexico's first Formula One driver in 30 years at Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, but earn some championship points in his debut race.
Perez finished the first day of practice on Friday eighth fastest — a fraction slower than Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa, but quicker than veterans Rubens Barrichello and Nico Rosberg. He was also seven spots faster than his more experienced teammate Kamui Kobayashi.
"I think it's a good first day and hopefully tomorrow can go the same way," said Perez, who left his home in Guadalajara at the age of 14 to pursue a motor racing career in Europe.
The younger brother of former champion NASCAR Corona Series driver Antonio Perez, Sergio's performance in the German Formula BMW, British Formula 3 and GP2 classes, as well as winter testing with Sauber in Barcelona, have already established him as a potential F1 race-winner.
Perez will become the first Mexican F1 racer since Hector Rebaque retired in 1981 when he lines up on the grid on Sunday. He got a taste of just what his achievements will mean to his countrymen when a crowd of more than 150,000 came to see him and his new Sauber race car during a visit to Guadalajara last month.
His first day on the Albert Park circuit did not disappoint.
"I am happy with how the day went," he said. "The second session especially was really good. I had no difficulties at all learning the circuit as I felt familiar quite quickly."
Perez did, however, acknowledge the steep learning curve needed to step up to the elite level.
"It's very tough and very difficult to get the most out of the car — with the traffic, with the tires, with all the control you have to be moving," he said. "It's very difficult to get everything right for just one lap, and be consistent as well."
The first practice of the season was a difficult one for all the drivers, who had to cope with a green circuit in tricky conditions, and new Pirelli tires, while becoming accustomed to the new rules for this season. The introduction of an adjustable rear wing and the reintroduction of the KERS power-boost system meant drivers must constantly adjust settings via the steering wheel.
"You have to be very, very focused not to make mistakes," Perez said. "You are very busy moving a lot of things on the steering wheel, which I was not used to. You have to worry about the tires, it's a big package.
"It's quite a big step, but overall I'm comfortable."
But Perez knows a good first day does not equate to F1 points.
"What really matters is tomorrow's qualifying and then the race," he said. "So we are trying to get more out of the car for tomorrow and try to do a good qualifying."