With his announced departure from Toro Rosso today, Jean-Eric Vergne now enters the Red Bull alumni club.
He’s now joined a much longer list of drivers who haven’t ascended to the top of the mountain of the Red Bull empire, despite coming so close.
It’s rarified air up there, for the all-too-few that do make it (Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat).
Meanwhile with Toro Rosso having passed up the option of keeping the Frenchman for a fourth year, they’re now likely to go an all-rookie route in 2015.
While Vergne has the ignominious mark of having two of his teammates – Ricciardo and Kvyat – both graduate to Red Bull in back-to-back years from Scuderia Toro Rosso, while Vergne has been passed up in successive years, he was a better F1 driver than most realized.
This year in particular, Vergne out-pointed Kvyat 22-8 and that gap could have been even more had it not been for some ill-timed retirements early in the season.
A turbo issue cost JEV the race early in Malaysia after qualifying ninth, while Kvyat picked up his second score in as many races to build his early season buzz.
In Monaco, Vergne qualified seventh, again ahead of Kvyat. But an exhaust issue sent him to retirement after 50 laps. On a day when the unfancied Lotus and Marussia chassis both scored points in eighth and ninth, this was a day Vergne had four to six points available for the taking.
Austria marked his fifth retirement in the opening eight races, a staggering number occurring to just one driver in an era where reliability has been better than ever, and still better than projected given the new regulations that came into play this year.
He could also count himself unlucky in 2013, when he had five retirements to Ricciardo’s three. In 2012, he had four retirements to Ricciardo’s one.
With 14 retirements in three seasons, Vergne has lost almost an entire season of his three in F1 to failures to finish, a majority of those endings due to mechanical issues outside his doing.
If he had a fatal flaw in F1, it’s that he didn’t maximize his potential as often as he could in qualifying. While there were high ceilings, they were many more lower valleys.
Vergne only outqualified Ricciardo eight times in 39 Grands Prix they were teammates from 2012 to 2013, with Red Bull ultimately deciding Ricciardo’s out-and-out pace advantage would be a better fit for Red Bull at year’s end to replace Mark Webber. This year, Vergne managed that same number – eight – head-to-head against Kvyat.
In all three years, Vergne’s qualifying average was just under his teammate’s. He shaded Ricciardo 16.9 to 14.7 in 2012, and 13.3 to 10.5 last year. This year he was closer to Kvyat – only down 11.7 to 11.1 – but with Kvyat posting more “wow” moments in qualifying with a pair of top-fives, and younger at age 20 to Vergne’s now “old” 24, he was the pick to move up once Vettel announced his Ferrari departure.
The sum of this is that Vergne is not a bad Grand Prix driver, but as F1 has evolved, so too have the opportunities for what you’d call “traditional midfield drivers.” So unlike a few years ago, where say a Nick Heidfeld or a Timo Glock could be around for a few years, with fewer midfield vacancies and more teams requiring budget, Vergne’s likely done in F1.
At 24, Vergne’s hardly old enough to have his F1 career end, but he wouldn’t even be the youngest driver discarded from Red Bull’s program. Remember Jaime Alguersuari, anyone? Done and dusted at 21.
What comes next for Vergne is the fascinating thing to watch this offseason. He could attempt to find an F1 reserve role elsewhere on the grid, or, alternatively, seek a spot in another championship where he could race, and that’s likely a better option for him.
He’d be a great fit in the FIA World Endurance Championship, a place where fellow ex-STR driver Sebastien Buemi has won this year’s World Championship with Toyota. Alguersuari has gone on to race in the new FIA Formula E Championship this year.
Other ex-STR drivers have made out for themselves just fine in their post-Red Bull lives. Besides the above two, Sebastien Bourdais has returned to IndyCar and won races. Scott Speed is a race winner in, ironically, Red Bull-backed Global Rallycross, driving for Andretti Autosport’s 7Up-backed Volkswagen program.
Brendon Hartley, a Red Bull project who got discarded from the empire even before Alguersuari to allow the Spaniard a chance, has since gone on to become one of the rising stars in sports car racing, and now has a factory deal with Porsche’s LMP1 program in the WEC. Canadian Robert Wickens has talent in spades, but since lost out on his Red Bull opportunity and his moved to DTM.
Incidentally the only ex-Toro Rosso driver who has driven in F1 again after his Red Bull life ended is Vitantonio Liuzzi, more due to good timing and availability than anything else. The Italian came back to Force India midway through 2009 and then resurfaced again with HRT in 2011.
So for Vergne, although we may have seen the last of him in F1, it’s doubtful we’ve seen the last of him in motorsports. Wherever he goes next, he could well be an asset, and rise to the potential he showed throughout three seasons in F1.