Could 2014 be Jean-Eric Vergne’s final year in Formula One? With the Frenchman’s rookie team-mate Daniil Kvyat impressing alongside him at Toro Rosso, while Red Bull’s Spanish protege Carlos Sainz Jr continues his march to the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, is Vergne’s seat and his entire F1 future now seriously under threat? Dan Paddock certainly thinks so.
Since his arrival in Formula One at the tail end of 2011, when he made a series of fleeting free practice appearances for Toro Rosso ahead of his full debut in 2012, Jean-Eric Vergne’s speed – crafted by a British Formula 3 title as well as wins in Formula Renault – has been evident.
He scored points in just his second race in F1 – in Malaysia – and went on to outscore his highly rated team-mate Daniel Ricciardo over the course of the pair’s opening season together at Toro Rosso, scoring 16 points to the Australian’s 10, courtesy of four eighth place finishes, despite the added experience of Ricciardo’s half-season with HRT the previous year.
Vergne carried that form into the early part of 2013, and while Ricciardo seemingly had the measure of his team-mate on a Saturday, it was the former who racked up the points come race day for Toro Rosso, with a collection of 13 points after seven races, eighth of those thanks to a career best finish of sixth in Canada. In contrast, Daniel Ricciardo had just seven points to his name.
Just one race later at the British Grand Prix, Mark Webber announced that he would retire from the sport at the end of the season, meaning Vergne’s early season form suddenly made him a major candidate to take the vacated senior Red Bull Racing seat for 2014, alongside Ricciardo and Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen.
Yet, while his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo went from strength to strength as the pressure of a shot at Webber’s Red Bull seat mounted, Vergne simply appeared to wilt under the weight of expectation. The Australian would go on to collect 13 more points, while Vergne would not score points again in 2013. The opportunity of a senior drive with the constructors’ champions alongside Sebastian Vettel had been on the table, but it was Ricciardo, not Vergne who had snapped it up.
With his confidence seemingly in tatters after his snub, and without points since the Canadian Grand Prix, there was some surprise when Toro Rosso confirmed that Vergne would indeed be staying with the team for a third successive year – only the second driver to do so after Sebastian Buemi.
With Red Bull juniors Antonio Felix da Costa, and GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat waiting in the wings, there were thoughts that Toro Rosso could simply start afresh in 2014, as they had done in 2012, when they dropped Jaime Alguersuari and the aforementioned Buemi for Ricciardo and Vergne. Yet, Vergne kept his seat for 2014, with Kvyat unsuspectingly promoted to the second Toro Rosso seat ahead of the da Costa, who was instead shipped off to the German DTM series.
Onwards to the present, and the two Toro Rosso drivers currently sit on four points apiece after six races. Vergne’s four points come courtesy of eighth at the season opener in Australia, the Frenchman’s first top 10 finish since Canada 2013, while Daniil Kvyatt, just a rookie, has impressed with three points finishes of his own, two tenth places in Malaysia and China as well as ninth on his F1 debut in Melbourne.
Certainly, the Frenchman has been unfortunate on occasions in 2014, losing what looked set to be a decent points haul in Monaco after an exhaust issue, his fourth retirement of the year. But in truth, bad luck or not the current standings do not do Vergne any favours at all, who owing to his experience you would rightfully expect should be showing Kvyat – a mere teenager of 19 when he made his debut in Australia – the way.
Instead it has been Kvyatt, not Vergne, who has been collecting the plaudits over the opening phase of 2014. The Russian rookie, not Vergne, was the star in Australia when he became the youngest driver to ever score points in Formula One at his maiden grand prix, despite the Frenchman securing his first points in half a year with eighth. Again in Monaco, Kvyat’s recovery from what could have been a big smash in Q1 to ninth on the grid overshadowed what had been a fine run from Vergne to seventh in qualifying.
In fairness Vergne has been left in an unenviable position this season. With the two Red Bull seats filled, and with Daniel Ricciardo excelling since his step-up to the senior team, Vergne’s only real objective is to routinely beat his rookie team-mate. He may well do so over the reminder of the year, but the route to Red Bull will, barring any major shocks, remain blocked foe 2015. Fail to do so, and his Toro Rosso career almost certainly comes to an end.
Once you consider the form of not only Carlos Sainz Junior in Formula Renault 3.5, but also that of his Red Bull stable-mate Alex Lynn in GP3, Vergne’s long-term future at Toro Rosso looks perilous indeed, despite his own protestations. If Sainz does secure the FR3.5 championship, of which he is the current leader, then Red Bull will almost certainly want to see him graduate to F1, with Toro Rosso the most obvious candidate. Lynn too, as well as Pierre Gasly – like Sainz also racing in FR3.5 – could all soon be knocking on the door of Toro Rosso. With no way to progress on up the ladder with Red Bull Racing a closed shop, and with young challengers snapping at his heels, Vergne’s Toro Rosso exit is seemingly only a matter of time.
But what if Vergne were to follow Alguersauri, Buemi, Sebastian Bourdais, Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed out of the Toro Rosso revolving doors? Would he, unlike any of his fellow Red Bull junior contemporaries, be able to buck the trend and secure another drive in Formula One once the energy drink money tap runs dry?
The Frenchman’s F1 results are decent enough, but at a time when the top-end of the junior motorsport ladder is choked with top talents attempting to break into the top category, be they from GP2, FR3.5, or even as was the case with Kvyatt straight from GP3, it is hard to see Vergne securing another F1 seat, especially if his funds were to be cut.
Unfortunately for Vergne, a driver whose rise to F1 came thanks to the backing of the Red Bull Junior programme, the current level of success of that very programme itself may well now cost him his Formula One career.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic