Jean-Eric Vergne is entering his third season of Formula 1 at the Scuderia Toro Rosso team, and the 23-year-old French driver has a new team-mate in the form of Russian teenager Daniil Kvyat.
But what does Vergne have to do to ensure a fourth season in the sport, and what does the Frenchman hope his Russian team-mate does not do?
You could say Vergne is in between a rock and a hard place in 2014. If he under-performs, he will be out of a drive with Toro Rosso, but if he does perform but Kvyat comes in and turns out to be exceptional, he could still lose out on that drive. He also has the uncertainty with the reliability of his car that has not shown well in pre-season testing to date.
Toro Rosso have a reputation of being harsh with their drivers, with both Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari dropped at the end of 2011 in favour of Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo; Alguersuari’s departure was even more cruel when it was revealed that he had been promised another year in Toro Rosso before being dropped.
“I was verbally confirmed during the Brazilian GP,” said Alguersuari in February 2012. “Hence, being confirmed by Red Bull and STR, I rejected a very good offer.
“On December 13th , when Red Bull Racing told me that I was no longer part of the family I said that I was not going to judge them, neither I was feeling like a victim and that this was not a drama. But let me say just one thing: they hurt me, and moreover, it was unnecessary.”
The current Red Bull junior roster is full of talent, with the likes of Antonio Felix da Costa, Carlos Sainz Jr, Pierre Gasly, Alex Lynn and Jann Mardenborough all making the Toro Rosso drivers look over their shoulders.
Talking at the time of Alguersuari’s and Buemi’s dismissals, Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost said that the two drivers were no longer classed as rookies and therefore no longer fitted in with the team’s criteria as a rookie training ground.
“One has to remember that when Scuderia Toro Rosso was established in 2005, it was done so with the intention of providing a first step into Formula 1 for the youngsters in the Red Bull Junior Driver programme,” said Tost.
“Scuderia Toro Rosso’s ethos has always been that of the “rookie training school” and with over two seasons under your belt, you are no longer a rookie. In an ideal world, drivers would move from Scuderia Toro Rosso to Red Bull Racing, but there are no vacancies with our sister team right now.
“It might be seen as a harsh decision, but Formula 1 is a tough environment and Toro Rosso has always been very clear about the principles behind its driver choice.”
Buemi had three years at the team, while Alguersuari two and a half. 2014 will be Vergne’s third year at the team, so by the principals that Tost set out in 2011, he is in the last chance saloon with the team. By Tost’s words he is no longer classed as a rookie, and has to deliver results for the team.
Christian Horner admitted Vergne was on the three-man shortlist for the 2014 Red Bull drive, but thought the Frenchman was not ready for the promotion to the world constructors champions.
“Jean-Eric is again demonstrating strong development and potential,” said Horner.
“At this stage, it is probably too early for him, which is why we chose to look at Daniel in the test at Silverstone [young drivers test].
“He deserves a seat in Formula 1 and should he not be successful with the Red Bull seat then it would make logical sense for him to continue with Toro Rosso.”
Vergne admits he was disappointed to miss out on the Red Bull drive when the team chose Ricciardo instead of him for the seat vacated by Webber. But he is determined to make the most of a third year at Toro Rosso.
“Right now, it’s a bit disappointing but who knows?” said Vergne in September. “In the future, maybe it will be a good thing to stay at Toro Rosso and get one more year to learn everything and get more experience.”
But was it simply coincidence that Vergne had a run of bad results after Ricciardo was confirmed at Red Bull? Yes, he had some unlucky races, but other days he was just anonymous, while Ricciardo was more prominent. Vergne failed to score a point after the Canadian Grand Prix, while Ricciardo claimed five points paying finishes after then.
“Obviously it was a difficult moment for me to go through and, of course, I took it like a little bit of a loss and bad luck,” said Vergne.
“I really took the time over the winter to look at myself in the mirror. I realised that it was a good thing for me to have not gone to Red Bull.
“I’m happy to be here and to create myself as a stronger driver. I see myself as a really weak driver last year, especially in the head.
“So I believe that if I had gone to Red Bull, it would have been like a win for myself and all the work I have done this winter, I would not have done in the same way. That would have made it a bad surprise to fight against Sebastian [Vettel].
“I see Toro Rosso as having really big potential. I am extremely happy to be in this team for this year.
“I think I am in a good position at STR and they have good plans for the future.
“If you can’t be in a top team like McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari, this is definitely the best team to be in.”
His two years of experience with the team, and now being the senior driver at Toro Rosso, Jean-Eric Vergne needs a strong year. He needs to maximise what his new STR9, Renault-powered car can offer him. If he does not achieve that, he will be another Red Bull backed driver on the scrap heap.
Initial testing of the new turbocharged car has not gone to plan, with many technical and mechanical issues meaning Vergne has spent more time in the garage than on track. A major Renault engine issue curtailed the most recent day of testing in Bahrain, where Vergne only completed 19 Laps. But he was happy about how the car felt when he did get out on circuit.
“I’ve been really pleased with the car behaviour,” said Vergne in Bahrain. “We’ve got a good package.
“When the engine will be there I think we will look more or less OK. The team has done a good job to give me a chassis that I like.
“I have big faith in the people working in the team and the Renault people. They know what the problems are, and I’m confident they can do something about it.”
But he has one other obstacle in his way – Daniil Kvyat. The reigning GP3 series champion comes in a time when new regulations are in place, meaning new drivers are not hindered as much as ones that have previous Formula 1 experience, as they would have been in normal years.
“He [Kvyat] impressed our team with a strong performance and very informative technical feedback at the young driver test in Silverstone,” said Franz Tost.
“This suggests that the basic qualities from which he can progress are all in place.”
There is a possibility that Kvyat might just be a superstar in the making. That would not bode very well for Vergne, who has already encountered a strong team-mate in Daniel Ricciardo. Vergne could have a strong year, but if Kvyat comes in at a similar level or even ahead of the Frenchman, it might not be enough to retain his seat.
Whether or not other teams notice him depends on his on-track performances, and he does not need or want to return to the mediocrity that plagued him in the second half of the 2013 season. He also has a new race engineer for 2014 in the form of Xevi Pujolar, who has moved from the Williams team. The Spaniard will work with Vergne directly at all Grand Prix.
He has belief that he can have a strong year and remain in the sport, even remain at Toro Rosso for an unprecedented fourth season in 2015.
“I believe in this team and I think they believe in me as well and I don’t see this as the last year in Toro Rosso.
“If I improve a lot as a driver and the team see in myself good potential and I see good progression in the team I will be more than happy to continue with this team.”
But he needs to perform from the off, and get results for the team. He needs to lead Toro Rosso throughout the year, but if he fails to do this, we could be saying goodbye to Jean-Eric Vergne from Formula 1.