NASCAR

Perez of Mexico eyes success at US Grand Prix

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP)

(Eds: Updates with quotes, background. With AP Photos.)By MICHAEL CASEYAP Sports Writer

If U.S. Grand Prix organizers are looking for a brand ambassador, Sauber's Sergio Perez wouldn't be a bad choice.

The 22-year-old Perez is the first Formula One driver from Mexico to reach the podium in 40 years. His success this season has put Formula One on the radar in his home country ahead of the race on Nov. 18 in Austin, Texas.

''It definitely will be a big home race event for me,'' Perez said. ''It's the closest race we have to my country. Definitely there will be a lot of Mexicans there. They are very excited and looking forward to my having a long career in Formula One.''

Perez qualified in 12th place for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.

He's 10th in the drivers' standings and finished on the podium three times this season. His second-place finish behind McLaren's Lewis Hamilton at the Italian GP in Monza was hailed as one of the most impressive drives of his young career. It also fueled speculation that Perez may be headed to Ferrari as a replacement for Felipe Massa.

Instead, he was announced as the replacement for Hamilton at McLaren. Hamilton, who won his only F1 title in 2008, will be moving to Mercedes, which made a lucrative offer that McLaren couldn't match.

''I was jumping on my bed,'' Perez said when he heard of his move to McLaren. ''I realized it was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was really motivated and think I've come into the best possible place on the grid. The best team, the best people. I'm just so happy to join my new family next year.''

Perez is likely to have a hard time matching the exploits of Hamilton, but the soft-spoken driver seems unfazed by the prospect.

''I rate Lewis very high. He is one of the fastest drivers in Formula One right now,'' he said. ''To come into those shoes, it will be difficult to fit. I'm confident it was an opportunity I was hoping to have and will give my best. I'm sure I will be very good there. I'm a hungry man for victory and want to win a lot, many titles with McLaren.''

Perez will be teaming up with veteran Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion. Perez seems eager to learn as much as he can from the Briton.

''Jenson is a very proven driver, one of the best in the world at the moment,'' Perez said. ''It's great to have a champion next to you. I am not a proven driver yet, and hopefully I can learn and my target, of course, is to beat him.''

Button said he welcomed Perez to the team.

''It's important to work closely with your teammate. I think that when he's in the team he will probably learn a lot from someone who is older, with more experience, which is me,'' said the 32-year-old Button. ''But I still think that when you're an older driver, you can still learn from a younger teammate to bring fresh ideas to the table.''

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