Oct 20, 2013, 7:00 PM EDT
After an association with Ferrari that has lasted over a decade, Felipe Massa is now entering his final four races for the Italian team. Having enjoyed the majority of his success in Formula One at Maranello – including his agonizing loss of the 2008 world championship to Lewis Hamilton – he is now facing a race against time to secure himself a place on the grid in 2014. Although seats remain at many of the teams lower down the grid, the Brazilian driver has remained defiant that he will only drive for a competitive team next season: so, Lotus. His refusal to follow team orders in Japan will have earned him some respect from potential suitors (even if Ferrari may not have been so receptive), but all the while to clock is ticking. However, he is not the only driver to be in this position.
Jean-Eric Vergne is, much like Massa, scratching his head and asking “where do I go from here?”. The Frenchman has gone through the majority of his motorsport career alongside current stablemate Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian will fly the Toro Rosso nest at the end of a year as he steps up to parent team Red Bull to partner soon-to-be four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. His replacement is set to be the next protégé from the drinks giant’s junior programme: Antonio Felix da Costa. Despite losing out in the race to move to Red Bull in 2014, Vergne has been assured of his future at Faenza. However, the partnership is a puzzling one.
Vergne’s F1 career so far has been good in places, but far from spectacular. His run to sixth place at this year’s Canadian Grand Prix epitomised his time in the sport: a great drive, but largely unnoticed. Whilst the Frenchman has quietly gone about his business, Ricciardo’s results have stood out more, with the Australian driver coming out the victor of some great battles in this year’s Chinese and Italian Grands Prix. His friendly demeanor in the paddock has also made him a favorite with the fans, whilst Vergne has been more reserved. All of these factors came to the fore in Red Bull’s decision to rebuff the Frenchman and take on his teammate, leaving him in limbo.
For Toro Rosso, the main reason for keeping Vergne is loyalty. After all, he hasn’t done a bad job during his time with the team, not warranting a fate that has befallen so many of his predecessors; Scott Speed, Sebastian Bourdais, Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari have all fallen by the wayside in recent years. Then again, in cases of Buemi and Alguersuari, it is hard to find great flaws in their performances. Continuity can be crucial to the success of a team, as Jenson Button and Brawn proved in 2009 when the Briton finally won his first world title. Although Vergne’s presence may not have as much of an impact, he will be able to guide his new teammate and the team entering a new era in 2014.
However, the very purpose of Toro Rosso – to nurture drivers that will race for Red Bull – means that Vergne is at threat. The arrival of da Costa in 2014 is an assumption, but he is widely regarded as being the ‘next in line’ to step up. Below him, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat are making a great deal of noise in an attempt to please Red Bull, and both are doing an excellent job in their junior categories. Fernando Alonso has inferred that he believes Sainz (a fellow Spaniard) is ready for F1, but a more likely debut season is 2015. However, with both youngsters champing at the bit and looking to follow in the footsteps of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, Vergne’s seat is far from safe.
In fact, it’s merely a question of how long it takes Sainz and Kvyat to mature and be ready for F1. Should Sainz be in a position to be promoted at the end of next season, it is likely that Vergne would make way for him to partner da Costa. Theoretically, Vergne has a twenty-six race window (by no means a paltry number of grands prix) in which to say to the other teams on the grid “here is why you should hire me.”
However, there is something of a saturation in the sport at the moment. There are more drivers capable, willing or simply rich enough to get a seat than places available, meaning that even talented drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg appear to be at risk of not finding a spot on the 2014 grid. Having not done enough to make the jump to Red Bull and currently amid a point-less streak that stretches back to his sixth-place finish in Canada, is Vergne really a better option than the likes of Hulkenberg, Massa and Gutierrez?
For the Frenchman, the clock is ticking. Although he has a longer period than Massa in which to prove his worth, he also has a couple of young and well-funded drivers snapping at his heels. Now is the time for Vergne to establish himself as a mainstay in Formula One and secure a spot on the grid for years to come.
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