By Alan Baldwin
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The pressure is mounting on Sergio Perez but the sole Mexican driver in the country's first Formula One grand prix in 23 years is handling it well, according to Force India co-owner Vijay Mallya.
Perez, on the podium in Russia this month and hitting a rich vein of form, has been at the center of attention all week with Sunday's race at the revamped Hermanos Rodriguez circuit a career highlight whatever the result.
More than 100,000 spectators are expected to turn out on Sunday after 89,000 attended Friday's free practice sessions -- more than turn up on race day at some venues with less tradition or local fervor.
Judging from the roar that went up whenever Perez's car appeared in sight, most will be cheering for the 25-year-old Guadalajara native.
"There is pressure, particularly in a home race where Checo (Perez) is a superstar and has so many fans," Mallya told Reuters.
"But I think he's mature enough to handle that pressure. In fact, coming off two strong performances in Sochi and then in Austin, he is really raring to go here in front of his home fans.
"That's my reading of the situation based on my conversations with him. He knows it's a competitive car and just has to relax and enjoy his racing. He's certainly not wilting under any pressure, doesn't show any signs of it."
Veteran Formula One insider Jo Ramirez, who worked with Brazilian Ayrton Senna at McLaren and has known every Mexican driver since he left the country for Italy with Ricardo Rodriguez in the early 1960s, hoped that was the case.
"I just hope he controls his nerves," the 74-year-old told Reuters in the paddock. "The passion he is going to have. He never really drove here. It’s 23 years since the grand prix was here.
"I saw in Brazil what happened with Ayrton Senna. Everybody wanted a piece of him, a photo, a signature, an interview..."
One headline in the national daily newspaper Reforma summed up a concern that all the attention could prevent Perez performing to his best: "Dejenlo Trabajar" (Let him work).
Perez, ninth and 15th in the two sessions, said he remained as focused as ever.
"I want to give all the Mexican fans who come to the track this week something to celebrate on Sunday...I am feeling optimistic that I will be able to deliver a good result for them," he said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)