Friday, 13 June 2014

Vergne's Validation

F1 is very big on its sliding doors moments. Tiny differences at vital moments that send subsequent fates spearing in opposite directions. And so it has been for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Vergne and Ricciardo's careers have suddenly diverged
Photo: Octane Photography
Both of course were paired at Toro Rosso for the two seasons before this one, with even before that having career trajectories verging on the spooky in their parallels: member of the Red Bull young driver programme; British Formula Three champion; runner-up in the Formula Renault 3.5 World Series after losing out in the final race; and getting an F1 promotion with Toro Rosso having impressed with lap times set in the Red Bull in the Abu Dhabi young drivers' test.

But as things stand they hardly could be further apart. Ricciardo of course has just taken his freshman Grand Prix triumph, after an early part of his first campaign in a Red Bull in which he's not only ticked all of the boxes, not only avoided error, but also stunned with his pace and won a lot of new admirers along the way.

Vergne meanwhile as his former stable mate reaches for the stars remains firmly rooted to planet Earth, still back at modest Toro Rosso. Worse, and slightly absurdly, according to murmurings Vergne is coming under threat of F1's increasingly-frequented premature scrapheap. Some noticed before the Canadian race that he'd only got four points so far this season. Others latched onto team principal Franz Tost's words that Carlos Sainz Jr - the next on the Bulls' conveyor belt - is due to get some Friday runs with the team before too long. Some noted that at Toro Rosso more even than at most F1 teams you're either moving up or moving out. And that Vergne is in year three at Faenza if history is a guide suggests he's somewhere near the end of his shelf life there. In its Toro Rosso guise no driver has ever stayed at the squad for longer.

Vergne's place in F1 has been questioned
Photo: Octane Photography
It's ironic also as for much of the time paired up with Ricciardo in the Red Bull school it was Vergne that those in the programme tended to rate slightly the more highly. But in his opportunity knocks chase of the promotion to the Red Bull big team - the one that Ricciardo won out in - what did for him more than anything was that in Vergne's two seasons at Toro Rosso he never got the knack of qualifying in the dry. Ricciardo meanwhile was excellent at it. Otherwise there was little to choose, and indeed often Vergne's race day pace was slightly the better (though qualifying lower tended to give him more fresh sets of tyres to play with). And on the rare occasions on which a wet or damp quali afforded Vergne a good starting slot he just about every time converted it into a good result. But the problem was the rest of the time he'd give himself too much to do, and would endure frustrating Sundays mired in the pack, looking mediocre to the outsider.

And what makes Vergne's position being under threat seem especially absurd is that the evidence of 2014 is that the dry qualifying thing is now much improved for him. He's up five to two on his fast young team mate Daniil Kyvat in their head-to-head record, and he also started in P6 in Australia, P7 in Monaco as well as P9 in Malaysia and China, while in Canada he continued his fine record with a P8 starting slot. So, Vergne it appears now has licked the one thing that rendered him below Ricciardo in their two years together. And with Danny Ric impressing us so much at Red Bull...

As for not converting his high grid places into high finishes this campaign, he has a good claim at a hard luck story. Indeed, those races wherein he hasn't scored in 2014 read as succession of extraordinary and unrelated instances of things going against him, to the point that you suspect that he might have grossly insulted the Goddess Fortune at some point.

In Australia he got the job done, bringing his machine home in eighth. In Malaysia though he had an engine problem off the line which lost him several places and then he made contact with Jules Bianchi at turn one, necessitating an early stop. And then he retired with an engine problem. In China he came home twelfth, in apparently an overweight car that cost him a couple of tenths per lap at least. In Bahrain he qualified in the pack - complaining of a down on power engine in the Saturday session - and then again had to pit early and then eventually retire after first lap contact. In Spain an errant wheel in practice meant a ten-place grid drop, and then in the race he first was hobbled by bad brakes and then had to stop with an exhaust problem. While in Monaco he reckoned he was on to finish fifth but was given a penalty for an unsafe release from the pits and later had to quit with another exhaust problem.

Vergne drove very well in Canada to finish eighth
Photo: Octane Photography
We can therefore understand why Vergne, when he was asked before the Montreal race about his relative paucity of results this year at that point, said 'if you've seen the races you'll understand'.

And every time he hasn't been dealt a dud hand by Lady Luck this campaign he's brought home the bacon. He continued this in Canada, with another eighth place finish, on the way looking unflustered with Fernando Alonso in his mirrors for the whole of the first stint as well as not being too far off the leading bunch at the end, having the legs of the likes of Kevin Magnussen and Kimi Raikkonen (even before the latter's spin) in the meantime.

And perhaps appreciating its timely nature he afterwards declared himself 'extremely happy' as well as claimed that race was 'maybe the best of my F1 career so far'.

One hopes that if Vergne keeps up this form not even F1 would be so absurd as to cast him to one side.

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