Fast cars, big crashes, beautiful grid girls and the Monaco harbor. All unique attractions to the supermassive world of Formula One – the largest global motorsport on the planet. Each season 22 drivers compete for the most prized racing seats on the planet – starting just one race is a astounding honor. But for Jean-Eric Vergne he got a few more than that, 58 to be exact. And a couple of weeks ago he took 20 minutes out of his day to share some insight into the mind of a competitive racer at the top level.
After growing up in France from a young age he burst onto the Formula One scene in 2012 with Toro Rosso – The so called “B” team for front runners, Red Bull Racing. He was bought into the sport by Red Bull Racing’s advisor, Helmut Marko. He spoke very highly of him telling me, “Helmut Marko is not the busiest guy on the planet but has given a lot of chance to many young drivers to race in Formula One and I think not many people in the paddock can say they have done what Helmut Marko has done.”
His most successful season in Formula One was 2014 – scoring a total of 20 points and finishing 13th in the World Drivers Championship. Despite being Vergne’s best season yet he unfortunately “lost more than 60 points because of problems related to the car” The 2014 Singapore Grand Prix was one of his best memories in Formula One where he scored a fighting 6th place to equal his best ever finishing position in a Grand Prix. “Yeah I think it was a good race for me, I liked it” he said.
At the end of the 2014 season, Vergne had to leave Toro Rosso to make way for young gun Max Verstappen with the team opting to keep Daniil Kvyat, who Vergne had outraced most of the season. “What has not been said so much in the press is that the whole year the car was 10 kilos to heavy, and Kvyat was 10 kilos lighter” said Vergne. He also went onto say: “in Formula One 10 kilos its straight to faulk every time out on the track. I never wanted to comment on that during the season because there was nothing I could have done about it.”
Despite the 2014 season being his last in Formula One, he stills remains positive and refuses to dwell on the past saying: “They had no place to promote me to Red Bull so therefore I was the one that had to go obviously to leave space for young drivers which is understandable you know I spent three seasons in Formula [One] with Toro Rosso and you’re never going to spend your career in Toro Rosso”
Well things for Jean-Eric Vergne at the moment are pretty good, he is currently Ferrari’s test and reserve driver, something he describes as “a really great opportunity” This role was acquired at the start of 2015 and he now spends Formula One race weekends “following all the briefings, debriefings and walking with the guys and being in shape and ready just in any case something will happen.”
His Ferrari role has recently seen him test the 2017 tires for Pirelli – Formula One’s official tire supplier. After one test day at Fiorano, Ferrari’s personal test track, he told me: “I know Pirelli is working really hard and we’ve been doing a great job.” And that was about all he could say – not letting slip on any other small details of the new wider tires.
Vergne is also still a competitive racer, currently taking part in the newly formed ‘Formula E’ series which is the first to run fully electric cars. As a Frenchman it’s only natural for him to race with DS Virgin Racing, a French constructor. After a difficult start to the 2016 season he recently pulled it back in the 2016 Paris ePrix finishing in 2nd place. “It was amazing, really, I mean driving for a French constructor there and having a podium there was really great, it was really nice. Obviously as a driver you always want the race win but you know I was happy with the podium.” he said. Vergne currently lies 11th in the standings.
When I asked him about a future return to Formula One he jokingly told me “Ah well which driver wouldn’t think of driving back in Formula One?” But then on a more serious note he said “I’m really thankful to Ferrari that I have been put in that position which shows they’ve put a lot of trust in me” But he also recognizes the difficult reality – and manages to still have a positive attitude toward it, saying “obviously getting back in Formula One is near mission impossible. But we never know, and it could happen – I know I will be a lot stronger than I was before”
For me, Jean-Eric Vergne is an admirable athlete who has even taught me a few lessons from my short time spent talking to him. He is quite clearly a professional athlete who refuses to dwell on the past and focuses on the here and now. He sets himself realistic expectations and most of the time seems to exceed them. In his career he has outscored prominent drivers such Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Nasr, Antonio Felix da Costa, Rio Haryanto, Alex Rossi and Kevin Magnussen in previous single seater series. Comparing him to Sebastian Buemi who also spent 3 years at Toro Rosso – Vergne finished 6th twice to Buemi only managing two 7ths as their highest finishing positions. He scored 51 points to Buemi’s 29 over the three years – a difference of 22. I am deeply saddened to know that he is simply a talent without an opportunity at the top level.
When we caught up with Jean-Eric Vergne, we were separated by a lot of kilometers and the sun was rising for me whilst falling down behind the clouds for him. He was heading back to Italy in preparation for what would become the exciting 2016 Spanish Grand Prix and he took 20 minutes out of his time to talk to me. I would just like to thank him for this amazing and surreal opportunity.
Finally, there was one thing that he said that has really stuck with me. When talking about Kvyat being kept over himself at the end of 2014 he said this. “I wouldn’t say it was felt because I don’t want to look like I’m complaining and I don’t want to look like any losers who would be blaming it on people or things. That’s the way it is. It has made me stronger”