The new French F1 driver at Scuderia Toro Rosso, Jean-Eric Vergne, arrives with a big reputation and a stellar CV. The Red Bulletin joined him on the eve of his first F1 season: a snapshot of a maybe-future-star
Italy’s A14 Autostrada stretches from one side of Bologna, in the bustling industrial north, right down the back of the boot, skirting the Adriatic coastline, all the way to Taranto, just above the heel. That’s 750km of pasta and romance, through the Emilia Romagna, to the coast and balmy Pescara then down past Bari, to the Med.
Today’s journey across it barely does justice to such a storied route, being just a motorway blast from Bologna airport to the scattering of factory units in Faenza that are home to the Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One team. But it’s not short of excitement. Reason being that this is the ‘first day at work’ for new French F1 hotshot Jean-Eric Vergne (JEV), Toro Rosso’s latest signing. And The Red Bulletin is perched on the rear seat of the workaday hire car which, up front, contains JEV and his buddy, confidant and chauffeur Renaud Derlot.
Derlot is a high-level racer, too, who competes in GT endurance championships (big, fast supercars – Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin) and,
like any of his clan, he knows only one way make to make a car move: fast.
Our chariot doesn’t have much beneath the bonnet, but Derlot is making the most of what it’s got: gears are extended to the max, door handles scrape tarmac as we howl around motorway exit curves. The brakes – well, let’s just say they didn’t know what was coming.
This, of course, is situation normal for a racing driver and JEV sits unperturbed up front, fielding BlackBerry calls and texts. We make swift progress.
Swift progress. That’s what it’s all about for drivers, like JEV, in the Red Bull junior programme. Swift on the track; swift through the ranks. Do well in the lower racing categories (Formula Three, Renault World Series), hit the targets set by programme manager Dr Helmut Marko and you will progress. That’s the compact, as perfectly exemplified by one Sebastian Vettel: now a double Formula One world champion with Red Bull Racing, yet only four years ago in a near-identical position to Vergne – a talented F1 rookie with everything to prove.
JEV (everyone calls him ‘JEV’) knows this, as does his 2012 Toro Rosso team-mate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who made a similar Faenza fact-finding mission a few days earlier. Each, now, must beat the other; each must prove not only that they are fast, aggressive racers, but also intelligent team players, capable, maybe, of pacing themselves through a season, crashing only very occasionally, and learning, learning, learning. The prize – and what a prize – might be a race seat at World Champion team Red Bull Racing. Not yet, though.
Not just yet. He’s a confident young man is JEV, as he has every right to be at this point in his career. Still just 21, he has exactly the right kind of CV to have brought him to where he is. French Formula Renault champion (2008) – check; British Formula 3 champion (2010) – check; Renault World Series Champion (2011) – er, not quite (he finished a somewhat unlucky runner-up).
For now, before testing and racing proper, JEV can remain in that blissful headspace of believing with absolute certainty that he is as fast as any of the other 23 competitors he’ll dice with this season. A future world champion? Of course he will believe this. He must. Only, however, when the lights go out in Melbourne on March 18 will he – and we – start to know for sure.
Read the full story in March's issue of The Red Bulletin.