If Jean-Eric Vergne had been in showbiz, his 2014 dismissal from Toro Rosso would?ve been food for the paparazzi. Instead, the solemn Frenchman attracted comparatively little attention as he tried to dismiss his winter woes in the Uruguayan sun.
That was a nadir for JEV, as he is better known, but also the source of his rise to become part of the creme de la creme of motorsport. Or if he was in theatre, how Simba became the King of the Savannah.
Vergne?s story starts in earnest in 2010, with his graduation to Formula 3. He?d spent his early years in racing in Formula Renault, winning the French 1.6-litre title (now known as Formula 4) in 2007 and then finishing runner-up in both the 2.0-litre Eurocup and West European Cup two years later. At the end of ’07 he became a member of the Red Bull Junior Team, putting him in line for an eventual Formula 1 drive.
He grew up over the next few years with that in the back of his mind, and on his overalls, and was lucky not to be dropped after a winless 2008.
“I first met Helmut Marko after winning the French [FR1.6] title,” Vergne recalls. “I was invited to a test at Estoril with at least 20 other drivers, and they were only taking two. They took [Daniel] Ricciardo and myself. This was when I [first] thought that I would have the chance to be in F1 one day, but of course nothing was guaranteed.
“In 2008 I was clearly on the edge of being let go by Red Bull. In the last races they told me if I don?t get a podium I?m fired.”
In the last Eurocup race of the season, Vergne beat champion Valtteri Bottas to the final podium place, securing his Red Bull future.
“Of course I then had to win [Eurocup] the next year. But 2009 was a very difficult season. Quite successful in a way, but we had to fight against cheaters, and I was sick in one race weekend. So finishing second by such a small margin was considered as a good season, and Red Bull was quite happy I guess, as they wanted to test me in the F3 car.”
Vergne was placed with Carlin for his season in British F3, and did so with the chassis that had won the previous two titles with fellow Red Bull juniors Jaime Alguersuari and Ricciardo. Talk about having predecessors to live up to.
But 2010 went exactly to plan, as he won 13 out of 30 races, took 11 poles out of 20 and earned the moniker of ?Toure Rouge?; ‘Red Bull’ in French. He finished fourth in the Masters of F3 and seventh in the Macau Grand Prix, and was even handed GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 cameos, which resulted in a race win and a boost of confidence.
“2010 was the year where I really found myself as a racing driver, and I absolutely loved the F3 car. I think it was clearly one of my best seasons, where I felt the strongest and really on top of my game. I won the championship halfway in the season nearly, and then they wanted to put me in FR3.5 alongside Ricciardo, replacing Brendon Hartley. In the last three races I had two podiums and a win, so it was a very successful season.
“Of course there was pressure to win the title. It was obvious from the first moment I stepped in the car, and considering how good I felt, it was always clear the target was to win the championship. There was no second position or whatever. If you want to get to F1 through Red Bull, you have to win at some point. Otherwise there is no chance.”
Dr Marko was kept happy, and Vergne was promoted to test driver status with Toro Rosso for 2011, his race seat in waiting.
The 20-year-old could do no wrong, and with Ricciardo only managing second in his rookie FR3.5 season, Vergne would have one up on the Australian in succession rights if he won the 2011 title. Vergne remained at Carlin, a team that rated him incredibly highly, and he was paired up with Red Bull reject Robert Wickens.
“2011 was a very good year. Insane fight with Robert, it was either him or me winning. It was just a question of when you don?t win, how far behind will you be. At the end of the season I had problems with tyre changes. Every time I was pitting, I was up front, and then exiting out of the points. So it was quite a difficult end to the season. But only lost by a few points. A really fantastic season. Obviously F1 was in the back of my mind, but that?s something you?re never sure about, and I tried not to think too much about it.”
The title was decided in Wickens’ favour in the final race, but with Sebastien Buemi and Alguersuari underperforming at Toro Rosso, Ricciardo and Vergne were put in their place for 2012. Vergne was one step closer to the seat he so desired, but one step closer to the lion?s den.
Points came in his second F1 race, but that feat was only repeated three times that year, and Vergne started to realise that as the stakes increased and the results got harder, the world around him became more toxic. The 2013 season was even worse with just three points finishes, the highlights of which were eighth in Monaco and sixth in Canada, and it was no coincidence that his best results in ’14 were also at street circuits, equalling his sixth place in Singapore.
With striking parallels to The Lion King, the gap left by Buemi and Alguersuari’s departure did not lead to all of Vergne’s dreams coming true, especially when his rival for the coveted Red Bull Racing seat was Ricciardo. Stereotypes and character traits aside, with a mop of black hair and a cunning smile, this Australian was the Scar to Vergne’s Simba. The change from fighting for wins to piloting a midfield car also made life difficult for Vergne.
“I think it was a rare chance that I got from Red Bull to go in F1. If I had to go back in time and change some things, I guess I would change my mentality,” Vergne admits.
“Coming from winning everything, and going into F1 and having to contend with eighth position was something that was not really in my genes. I probably had a bad image because I never seemed to be happy with whatever I was doing. I always wanted more, and in the Toro Rosso more was not something that was possible back then.”
The desire for more is similar to that of a young Simba when shown the horizon, the absolute limit of the kingdom. Like Toro Rosso’s development capabilities, there was no need to thinking about going beyond it. And as for changing the past, well, that was one of Simba’s first thoughts upon being outcast.
“I scored more points than Ricciardo in my first year, but then I guess he was a lot more friendly with everybody. He was always smiling, doesn?t matter if he was last or in the points. And I guess image-wise I took a hit, definitely.”
Ricciardo?s 2013 season was strong enough for him to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull for 2014, and when Sebastian Vettel left the team a year later for Ferrari, his slot should?ve been Vergne?s for the taking. But the next hot young thing had already joined Vergne as his Toro Rosso team-mate, and beaten him, and Daniil Kvyat was duly promoted into Vettel?s place.?In November of that year Vergne lost his Toro Rosso seat. His street circuit pedigree meant Formula E was a logical progression, although he kept F1 ties by becoming Ferrari’s development driver.
“I think I learned a lot in F1, but I learnt especially not to care about what people say about you.?Now I enjoy myself, and I just want to do the best job I can. if I?m happy I?m happy, and if I?m not happy I?m not trying to hide anything now. And I guess trying hard not to fit into something that people want you to be. It?s something that definitely relieves me and made me a lot happier to compete again. And that?s what happened in FE.”
A cinematic metaphor, albeit one based on a Shakespearean play, can only go so deep, and Vergne’s willing to offer even greater depth into his journey from heir presumptive to outcast, and then finally to top of the world thanks to his 2017-18 FE title triumph. And yes, his Techeetah team may have links with another of Africa’s big cats, but combine the speed and look of that animal with the strength and passion of a bull, and Vergne is very much the modern day lion of motorsport.
What was Vergne’s state of mind when he was cast out of his Toro Rosso seat, and how different is that to the Vergne of today?
“When I left F1 it was definitely a very, very hard thing to take. It was always the dream to be a F1 driver, and to be successful [in F1]. And that was not the case, so Formula 1 was clearly not [successful]. Some people may say ?you?ve been in F1, that’s fantastic. You had some great races, great battles?, but that?s not really what I would call a success. So yeah, it was definitely really hard for me to take.
“I was very unhappy, attracted some negative people around me, negative things, and then I think it was a road down to hell for me for at least one year and a half.”
Vergne turned off from that road when he joined Andretti Autosport for the 2014 Punta del Este E-Prix, taking pole on his debut but retiring after leading much of the race. Two more poles and two podiums put Vergne seventh in the FE standings, and he switched to DS Virgin for his second season. Although he enjoyed FE as a concept, he still hadn’t adapted to it fully as a driver, and didn’t gel fully with the Virgin team. This prompted a switch to Techeetah, a team born from the embers of Aguri – a former F1 backmarker. At the same time, he rescinded his Ferrari duties, showing his commitment to FE.
“Techeetah, at the beginning, was a bit of an investment. I really believed in FE when I came in, and I made a deal with the Chinese firms CMC and SECA to buy out the Aguri team. So I had a world that was different as a racing driver, and I had new challenges.
“It was a new team, there was absolutely everything to be done and the team counted on me more than any other team would have expected me to in the past. We had to build a whole team together, and to be successful, to try to find an OEM – which we found with DS.
“It?s been a hell of a journey, and a fantastic journey. It?s taught me so much more about my sport – that really helps me in every day life – when we are at the track, or when we are at the team factory working with everybody. It?s been really good for me.
“It kind of put everything I had [in F1] behind me, as I was trying to focus the maximum on this team. I?m trying to be successful as a team, and this is really when I changed completely. Like from A to Z, I was not the same driver anymore, I?m not the same person anymore, as well as in my private life. I guess I learned a lot from all the failures I had, and there is this saying that bad things always happen for a reason.
“Obviously I could never find a reason why those bad things happened [in F1], but today I?ve been able to find it. A bit later in time, but it helped me a lot to not make the same mistakes, or to approach things differently with life, in racing, within the team, with the media, you know, with everything surrounding our world.
“The difference between JEV today and in the past, I guess if JEV of today would go back in F1 – or at least go back in time, because I don?t think I would have the chance to go back in F1 with a good team now – it would be a different story. I guess it?s not up to me to judge. The people around me are looking at what?s happening, and they can see it would be a different story in F1. But that?s not the case [being in F1], so, whatever. Never mind, no worries.”
Vergne’s Hakuna matata-style (no worries) approach to his life now is a stark difference to his time in F1, and represents a full circle from when he first thought he’d found himself as a racing driver back in 2010. He’s in the form of his life, not just in FE, but in sportscars too.
He drove the title-winning car in the European Le Mans Series this year, but missing the season opener meant Vergne finished second in the drivers’ standings. At Le Mans he was also denied ultimate honours, winning the LMP2 class by two laps but then getting disqualified for an illegal refuelling rig.
“My skillset [has diversified], of course. I?m a more complete driver in many areas. Politically, talking, fitness, the racing, attacking, defending, I?ve been better in many areas. Obviously driving in FE and LMP2 helped me to achieve that.
“Of course nobody is unbeatable, and the great thing I feel about myself right now is that I?m still not at my 100%. I feel that every time I get in the car, every time I talk to engineers and while in the simulator, I feel that I get better, that I understand more things. It gives me a boost of confidence every time I improve myself by these little amounts, and that?s really something I want to keep: to never think that you?re unbeatable, but always keep working. And I guess to realise, steps and minor gains should give yourself confidence. I’m at the top of my life.”