For the second consecutive season, Jean-Eric Vergne was consistently beaten by his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. Now, the Aussie has been promoted to a seat at Red Bull, while the Frenchman is left clinging on to his Toro Rosso drive for a third year.
Plenty was expected of Vergne when he debuted in F1 back in 2012, partnering Ricciardo at the Italian team. He had powered to the British F3 title in 2010 and backed that up with a successful first full campaign in Formula Renault 3.5, finishing as the championship runner-up in 2011.
It was an all-new line-up for the former Minardi outfit after they dropped Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, despite both showing improved form during the previous season.
In his rookie season, Vergne scored on four occasions – coincidentally they were all eighth place finishes. He proved to be stronger in race trim, but was blown out of the water in qualifying by his similarly inexperienced team-mate.
Ricciardo made it into the top 10 shoot-out twice and was only knocked out in Q1 on two occasions. In contrast, Vergne failed to even make the final qualifying session despite 20 attempts and was knocked out eight times in the first session.
His Australian team-mate gave the paddock glimpses of his raw speed, while Vergne was a quietly consistent racer who – largely – stayed out of trouble. However, this didn’t continue in 2013. His poor qualifying form remained, losing in the inter-team Saturday battle 15 times, but he failed to recover the ground on race day.
Granted, he scored the team’s best result of the year with sixth place in Canada but after that, he failed to register another top 10 finish. Ricciardo stepped up his game in race trim and he was eventually promoted to a drive at Red Bull.
The Frenchman admitted that the blow was a “big disappointment” but feels that it has helped him become a better driver. Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost is expecting him to come out fighting next season, and he really needs to.
Vergne’s future in F1 now looks uncertain, beyond 2014 anyway. We all know Toro Rosso are not afraid of dropping drivers after a season or two, if they haven’t shown the spark that they spotted during the driver’s time in feeder series. Vitantonio Luizzi, Scott Speed, Sebastien Bourdais and Jaime Alguersuari are all good examples of this. In fact, Vergne will become the team’s most experienced driver during the year and that is an achievement in itself.
He will have to out-perform his new rookie team-mate Daniil Kvyat if he wants to remain in the sport beyond this season. The young Russian was a surprise addition to the team’s line-up, with many expecting Toro Rosso to go for Formula Renault 3.5 frontrunner Antonio Felix da Costa.
The Portuguese driver suffered a slightly shaky 2013 campaign, showing just how high Red Bull’s standards are for their young drivers, and hence Kvyat, who won the GP3 title last year, was picked instead. He is a very exciting prospect and impressed during two first practice runs at the end of last year.
Consistently beating his new team-mate will be crucial in helping secure Vergne’s long-term future in F1 because, so far, he has failed to show the spark that his rivals have given us glimpses of. With da Costa waiting in the wings as Red Bull Racing’s reserve driver for 2014, his time is running out to really prove that he has the potential to race at the front.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic