Perez carries hopes of a nation in F1's Mexican GP

MEXICO CITY (AP) He has the financial backing of one of the wealthiest men on the planet. He got a personal visit from Mexico's president.

To say Sergio Perez is under enormous pressure to perform well at Sunday's Mexican Grand Prix is an understatement. It's more like he's carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his four wheels in Formula One's first race in his native country since 1992.

''To race in front of my whole people, all my country, it's something special,'' Perez said, with an eye toward what organizers hope will be crowds exceeding 300,000 cheering him through practice, qualifying and the race.

Crowds started pouring in Friday. Some wore sombreros. Others wore lucha libre wrestling masks. Many waved Mexican flags in support.

''You know how Mexicans are,'' Perez said. ''(Sunday) is going to be the most special day of my career no matter what result I get.''

The Force India driver is in his best form of the season. He finished third in Russia three weeks ago and has scored points in five of the last six races.

Perez is aiming for his sixth career podium finish. His first career win, well, that would be the ultimate dream.

''I think there's a very good chance we can keep up the momentum,'' Perez said.

The first Mexican Formula One race in a generation has the feel of being staged just for Perez.

Perez and compatriot Esteban Gutierrez (a reserve driver with Ferrari this season) are two of just six Mexican drivers in Formula One history. They are the first since Hector Alonso Rebaque in 1981.

Perez' gleaming smile advertises the race on billboards across the city and on television. The souvenir zone at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has sales tents featuring special Perez merchandise. It is located not far from one dedicated to Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing legend who was killed in 1994.

It is all calculated to maximize the race's appeal to Mexican fans, said Tavo Hellmund, the former American race driver and promoter who began developing the race even before Perez made his F1 debut in 2011. Perez helped bring investors, Hellmund said, calling him the ''wild card in the entire thing.''

Perez was long considered a potential racing star.

A product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, the 25-year-old Guadalajara native is supported by billionaire Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, who has been a regular with Perez at races around the world.

Slim visited Perez on Thursday as teams settled into their garages and workers put the final touches on the track and stadium. Then came the whir and rumble of a federal helicopter and motorcade bringing President Enrique Pena Nieto.

With the Force India garage packed with security, television cameras and crew members, Perez tutored the president on the finer points of a Formula One car's high-tech steering wheel.

''Mexico is a very important race for us,'' said Force India team principal Vijay Mallya. ''(Sergio) enjoys a huge following and we have a large number of Mexican team partners, so we are determined to do well in front of them.''

The racetrack is named after brothers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez, who were killed in racing accidents. Like Perez, they were dashing and fearless, but they also raced in a far more dangerous time. Ricardo Rodriguez was only 20 when he crashed at this track in a non-championship F1 race in 1962. The turn where he died was long considered one of the most dangerous in the sport and has been drastically altered to meet new safety standards.

Pedro Rodriguez raced 55 Formula One events and won twice. He died in a flaming crash in a lower-level race in Germany in 1971 at age 31. Another Mexican driver, Moises Solana died in a race in the United States in 1969.

Perez has long heard the tales - and knows of the longing for a new Mexican standard bearer.

''I think they were great,'' Perez said. ''Unfortunately, they died at a very young age. I think they had a lot more to offer the sport.''

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