In light of Sauber news, Toro Rosso now has the Vergne conundrum

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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.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.