Time is ticking for Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso

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He may have had more than his fair share of bad luck so far this season, but time does appear to be ticking for Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso, and perhaps even on his F1 career.

Being a member of the Red Bull junior programme has its perks and drawbacks. The obvious benefit is the backing from one of motorsport’s biggest brands, with Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo being its two biggest stars. However, they have also set a dangerous precedent: this is the kind of quality that the team is looking for.

When Mark Webber confirmed at Silverstone last year he would be retiring, a race between Ricciardo, Vergne and Kimi Raikkonen was sparked for his seat. The Australian driver eventually won out, rising to the occasion and performing when it mattered. Vergne, on the other hand, failed to score in the final eleven races of the year.

So far this season, Vergne has two eighth place finishes to his name and eight points, but he could be right to feel short changed given that five of his races have ended in retirement. The Toro Rosso car has certainly improved since the beginning of the season, yet its pace is still hindered by the dud Renault engine in the back.

For Vergne, the pressure comes from below. Should he see out the end of the season, he will have started more races than any other driver for Toro Rosso, but history suggests it may not go far beyond that. Traditionally, Red Bull has jilted ‘under-performing’ drivers from the team in favor of other juniors. Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were both hard done by, but they simply had not done enough and were sacked at the end of 2011. Vergne is already coming under pressure from the next batch of Red Bull juniors.

Carlos Sainz Jr. (son of his rally legend namesake) is the next junior in line for a seat, it would appear. He is currently leading the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, and all of the signs suggest that he will go on to win it. If anyone is going to get a seat at Toro Rosso, it would probably be him.

Then again, the same thing was said about Antonio Felix da Costa last season, only for the Toro Rosso seat to go to Daniil Kvyat. da Costa’s career appears to have hit something of a dead end, and he is now racing in the German DTM championship.

The outsider for Vergne’s seat would be Britain’s Alex Lynn. The youngster received Red Bull backing at the beginning of the season, and he is already proving his worth in GP3, leading the championship after four races.

For now though, Sainz must be the favorite. If he can follow in Kevin Magnussen’s footsteps to win the Formula Renault 3.5 title, it would surely be curtains for Vergne. Bad luck aside, a change has to come for the Frenchman to keep his F1 career alive.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”