In the run-up to the Monaco Grand Prix, Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne spoke of the need for a driver to humble in his approach to Monaco. The Frenchman had been speaking about the proximity of the barriers, the levelling nature of the street circuit and the need for a driver to feed himself into the track slowly across a grand prix weekend.
Leaving the street circuit on Sunday evening the Frenchman would forgiven for looking back on his statement with a heavy heart – his humble approach had turned into a humbling experience, through no fault of his own.
Until Sunday afternoon Vergne had enjoyed an exemplary weekend. In first practice he was 15th fastest, eclipsing the impressive Daniil Kvyat by seven tenths of a second, though to be fair it was the Russian rookie’s first visit to the street circuit – in any category.
In the wet afternoon session Vergne as usual, excelled. The 24-year-old has consistently proven to be one of the grid’s finest wet weather exponents and a strange session was enlivened by a period during which Vergne and Kvyat ventured out on intermediates and swapped fastest times. When a dry line began to appear Vergne was quickly out of the blocks and lowered the benchmark by more than five seconds. Even as the rest of the field emerged, Vergne was able to hold onto to an excellent fourth on the timesheet.
The good work continued on Saturday morning when a cautious exploration of the track limits netted ninth in FP3 and then an excellent qualifying session handed him seventh. His final Q2 lap was particularly impressive. Whereas in his first two seasons the Frenchman often crumbled under the pressure of having to deliver a single lap, in Monaco he put in an error-free final tour to muscle into Q3.
The race, though, was a different story. Vergne did his part – he made a good start (again often a problem area in the past) and cemented himself into seventh. With retirements occurring all around, Vergne afterwards said he was sure he could have managed fifth – a career best. However, on lap 26 he pitted following Adrian Sutil’s accident and his team, desperate to keep him ahead of Kevin Magnussen, released him straight into the path of the Dane.
The resultant drive-through penalty dropped Vergne to rear of the field, behind Jules Bianchi and an exhaust problem on lap 51 ended his race. Whether the issue was exacerbated by the time spent sitting on Bianchi’s gearbox is open to question but the fact remains that in sight of a solid points-scoring finish, Vergne was again robbed of the chance.
And it’s been that way since the start of the season. In Spain, a Friday afternoon fumble with a detached wheel saw him receive a 10-place grid penalty. He qualified a useful 11th but started 21st where he toiled helplessly, suffering with a locking front brake, until lap 25 when another exhaust problem saw him exit the fray. In Bahrain, hit by a Lotus, floor damage ended his race. In Malaysia power unit issues halted progress. It’s been one, long catalogue of woe.
The mechanical gremlins and persistent finger trouble will be a source of more than frustration for Vergne. Having lost out on a seat at Red Bull to Daniel Ricciardo at the end of last year, in no small part due to JEV’s qualifying issues, his status as a Red Bull driver is in jeopardy. This is his third season with Toro Rosso and no driver has lasted longer than that with the team. Both Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were given a three-season stint and both were axed as talent rose up the Red Bull Junior Team ladder. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed and Sébastien Bourdais were given just two. The same is true now. While the Junior Team’s ranked have been thinned this season, Carlos Sainz Jr is going well in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP3 driver Alex Lynn is knocking on the door. Whether they are better racers than Vergne is an unknown but their time is coming and Vergne is surely aware of that. Vergne will also be keenly aware that in the eight seasons the team has been on the grid only Liuzzi has managed a move to a non-Red Bull team, the Italian leaving the Faenza squad for stints at Force India and HRT.
Vergne’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that he is taller and heavier than the Russian – Vergne says up to alb – which is hurting. Also, team boss Franz Tost has repeatedly referred to the Frenchman’s struggles with the new brake-by-wire system, which at the opening round at least caused major problems for both drivers, with Vergne saying: “Sometimes you’ve got this massive recharging at the rear, which recharges too much, so you have locking at the rear. Sometimes it doesn’t want to recharge and the brake goes all forward and you have no brakes on the rear and you lock the front and just go straight in the gravel.”
It’s unfortunate for the Frenchman, as his performances this year are much better than paper would suggest. A cursory look at the stats sheets will show that Monaco aside Kvyat has generally been quicker in each sector or each circuit, that the Russian is faster through the speed traps and generally posts a quicker best lap than Vergne in races. What is missing from the Russian’s 2014 CV, however, is consistency. Vergne, by dint of experience, is able to stitch his sectors together and has outqualified the Russian five to one so far.
It’s a real sign that Vergne has upped his game. Last year against Ricciardo, the French driver was trounced in qualifying – 15-4. His 2013 failure to maximise potential on Saturdays frequently put him in troublesome areas of the grid and left him tussling for space that often wasn’t there. Over the winter Vergne insisted that this was his biggest priority and he has clearly put in the work.
The improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly as Kvyat has been impressive so far. Vergne’s ability to match and eclipse the talented Russian have, according to paddock sources, earned him appreciative glances from a number of other teams.
The issue for Vergne now is to hammer that message home – both to anyone he wants to woo and to his existing team.
Team Principal Franz Tost, infatuated with the performance of GP3 winner Kvyat attempted to give Vergne a boost recently but succeeded only in damning his senior racer with faint praise. Lauding Kvyat as a future champion, he remembered not to omit Vergne and referred to him as a “sensible driver” – hardly a confidence booster.
It’s a crucial period of the season now for Vergne. Last season he went to Montreal – a track he favours – and scored his best result of the season. He needs to repeat the performance. After that is the unknown of Austria and then a three-race rush, through Silverstone, Germany and Hungary, to the summer break. Going into that break with more than a record of a single points finish in the season opener would go a long way to building a case for a fourth season at STR or a switch.
And to do that he needs his team on board. After joining Williams in April, Rob Smedley railed against the operational errors that cost the team valuable points in this season’s early races. Last week team boss Claire Williams praised the new head of vehicle performance’s work and said the team had eradicated the issues. Vergne might do well to take a leaf out of the ex-Ferrari man’s book and start pointing fingers.