Sergio Perez said his first corner crash turned his home Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday into the saddest experience of his career.
The Red Bull driver, who enjoyed passionate home support, collided with Charles Leclerc of Ferrari as he challenged for the lead by drawing alongside him and his Red Bull team-mate world champion Max Verstappen.
But three into two would not go, he said, after bouncing off into a run-off area from which he recovered, limped to the pits and retired.
"I've had some really sad moments in my career," he said. "And certainly this is the saddest one because of the end result, but at the end of the day it’s just racing."
The incident not only ended Perez’s race, after he made a good start from fifth on the grid, but also damaged Leclerc’s Ferrari, leaving him with a damaged front wing.
He continued, but he was unable to resist seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes and finished third behind him as Verstappen sped to a record 16th win of the season and 51st of his career.
Perez was adamant that he had to take the risk of fighting to win in front of his fans in a big crowd at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
"To be honest, I felt that I would have let them down more if I didn't go for it… I saw the gap and I went for it,” he said. “I decided to take a risk. I knew it was going to be very risky, and I ended up paying the price."
He added that he would take the same decision again.
The outcome did little to quell speculation about his future with Red Bull after a dismal run that has seen him without a podium in five races since the Italian Grand Prix on September 3.
While Perez flopped again, Hamilton’s haul of points enabled him to close within 20 points in their scrap for second place in the drivers’ championship, a target valued by Red Bull because they have never had a one-two finish in the title race.
Verstappen leads on 491 ahead of Perez on 240 with Hamilton on 220.
And one of the drivers most touted as a possible Red Bull replacement for Perez in 2024, Daniel Ricciardo, confirmed his recovery from injury with a broken hand by finishing seventh, having out-qualified Perez, in his Alpha Tauri.
"You have days like this,” said Perez. “What makes me feel proud is that I gave it all. And that's it…."
Team boss Christian Horner was sympathetic afterwards. “He had a rocket-ship launch and so much momentum in the first corner that you can’t blame him for going for it and trying to take the lead at his home race."
Horner added that it was a moment to support Perez and not to criticise.
"He’s got 13 years’ experience in F1 and I think when you’re going through a difficult moment, it’s important to support him. He was having a great weekend until that point.”
He praised Ricciardo for his maturity, experience and pace after a race that the returning Australian described as “the weekend I dreamed of – and I got it".
His success for Alpha Tauri lifted them to eighth level with Alfa Romeo in the constructors’ championship on 16 points, leaving Haas 10 th and last on 12.