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.