As Jean-Eric Vergne continues to fight for his future on the grid – my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith outlined that story last weekend – he should, in theory, be in a stronger position this weekend than he was barely a week ago in Austin.
How so, you ask? While Toro Rosso is yet to confirm the teammate alongside 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen for 2015 and won’t do so until after Abu Dhabi, Sauber has gone out and announced Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr in the last week.
At time of writing, that would make that team the least experienced on the grid, as Ericsson’s 16 Grands Prix this season are the only races either driver will have done.
Of course, Toro Rosso could double down and put two rookies in the car, and thus make the Sauber pairing look like an old hand.
The team is faced with the option of putting in a second rookie alongside Verstappen, in the form of Red Bull-backed juniors Carlos Sainz Jr., Alex Lynn or Pierre Gasly, or staying the course and retaining Vergne for his fourth full-time season. Vergne has said the latter, unsurprisingly, would be a win-win for the team.
Traditionally speaking, they’ve opted to play youth on the same level. Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were paired together and neither advanced into Red Bull, while after Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo got paired up, Ricciardo emerged ahead as the Red Bull driver of choice.
Vergne has thus been cast into a no-win situation this year where paired against Daniil Kvyat, if he beat him regularly, it would have been expected, and if Kvyat showed more promise, he could move up. And that situation has now come to pass with the Russian moving up to Red Bull alongside Ricciardo.
Picking any of the three rookies in line would fall in line with Toro Rosso’s history. Sainz has captured the Formula Renault 3.5 title this year and seems poised to move up, yet he could be left at the altar like Antonio Felix da Costa was this time last year. Lynn’s the GP3 champion but has only won three races. Gasly came second to Sainz in 3.5 on the strength of a consistent, but winless, season, and has since struggled in a handful of GP2 appearances.
Why should Toro Rosso keep Vergne for yet another season when his two teammates have done the job of advancing in front of him?
For one, the experience factor is a real consideration here. While Verstappen is undoubtedly talented and a potential World Champion-in-waiting, he’s still only been in actual cars for just one season out of karting. He’ll need a full season to mature and develop, and having a measuring stick such as Vergne would be a boon rather than a hindrance. Any of the juniors don’t yet have that F1-level experience to match.
Second, Vergne, more than most in the midfield, has shown a real flair for punching above his weight on occasion, which could help the team’s bottom line. His biggest strike against him is his inconsistency, but that owes more to reliability issues.
He hasn’t qualified worse than 14th this year; his two starts lower than that both owed to 10-spot grid penalties. He’s also out-pointed Kvyat 22-8, which would mark the second time in three years he’s outscored a teammate (Ricciardo in 2012). When he hits his high points, he really hits them – as was evidenced at Monaco and Canada last year, and Singapore this year.
“I believe that I’ve done many races in the past like this but unfortunately the beginning of the year I had a lot of DNF and obviously, when you don’t finish the race, people don’t remember what you’ve been up to in the race,” Vergne explained during today’s FIA press conference ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix.
“That was a little bit of a shame. I haven’t changed anything. I drive with a lot of passion, I love racing, that’s what I do best and it doesn’t matter what I do next year, I continue, I don’t continue, I’ll always give my best to a hundred percent and try to have the most fun possible. This is when you perform well.
“It would be a good thing to stay with this team,” he added. “I really believe in it and I think this year we did get a lot stronger and next year we’ll be again on this up-trend, so I believe we can be again in a better position next year so hopefully we can continue.”
It remains to be seen whether he will, or whether Toro Rosso will follow its traditional form book and go for two first-timers.