Jean-Eric Vergne joined the F1 fraternity in 2012 as part of a French vanguard looking to re-estabish the nation as a force in the top flight some 16 years after Olivier Panis last caused the tricolour to be raised over the top step of the podium.
Vergne, unsurprisngly, spent his formative years racing karts, both in his homeland and on the international stage. Debuting as an eleven-year old, he finished as runner–up in the French Rotax Max championship three years later, before taking a similar result in the 2005 European ICA Championship, and then claiming seventh overall in the 2006 KF1 World Championship.
Having performed well on the highest rung of the karting ladder, Vergne decided that it was time to turn his attention to car, kicking off his career in the familiar surroundings - for French drivers at least - of the Formula Renault Campus category. Showing an immediate affinity for single-seater racing, the 17-year claimed the title at his first attempt, on the back of ten podium appearances in 13 outings.
The performance was enough to attract the attention of both the French motorsport federation and Red Bull, whose backing would be an advantage as he looked to move up the ladder. The next rung was to be Formula Renault - again a familiar haunt for French talent - as Vergne contested both the West European and Eurocup championships with SG Formula. Although victories eluded him in his debut season, he finished fourth and sixth overall respectively, taking a total of four podium finishes across the two competitions. In both cases, however, he was the highest-placed newcomer, and was awarded the French 'title' after being the best of his countrymen in the WEC.
He remained in FRenault for 2008 but, despite improving his results, came up against Alberto Costa in both the Eurocup and WEC, and had to give best to the Spaniard in each, finishing the year in second place despite making the breakthrough as a race winner. In all, Vergne topped the podium four times in the Eurocup and three times in WEC, as well as claiming seven pole positions in the year.
That performance paved the way for another step up the ladder but, instead of following a lot of FRenault drivers into the regie's World Series, Vergne opted, with the guidance of Red Bull, to try his hand in Formula Three, replacing outgoing champion - and fellow Red Bull alumni - Daniel Ricciardo at the crack Carlin team.
Unsurprisingly, he immediately proved to be a frontrunner, winning twice in the opening triple-header at Oulton Park and repeating his success with at least one race win at every round bar the second event at Silverstone and Brands Hatch finale. By the latter, however, he had already been crowned as champion, eventually racking up 13 race wins in 30 attempts, including a clean sweep at Spa-Francorchamps. Although he took pole at Zandvoort, success in the F3 Masters event eluded him, as did the Macau crown, but Vergne was already looking to the future, racing in both GP3 and the World Series by Renault before the year was out.
Importantly, he claimed his maiden WSbR victory among the six appearances he made in 2010, finishing a remarkable eighth in the standings and cementing his graduation to the series for the following year. Despite being a hot property, Vergne remained with/returned to Carlin for his first assault on the WSbR title, and the relationship remained successful as he took four poles and five wins to keep himself in contention for the crown until the final weekend at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya. His rival, however, was team-mate Robert Wickens, and it was the Canadian who wrapped up the title despite being eliminated in an opening lap clash between the pair during the season finale.
Vergne's Red Bull links, meanwhile, had seen him combining his WSbR commitments with appearances with the drinks brand's F1 operations, replacing Ricciardo as Scuderia Toro Rosso's Friday practice driver when the Australian was seconded to the HRT team. His F1 debut had come earlier than that, however, having driven a Red Bull Racing car at Goodwood's Festival of Speed in 2010 and appeared for STR at the Abu Dhabi 'young driver' test later the same year. Another strong showing at the 2011 Abu Dhabi 'talent show' was expected to lead to a permanent test and reserve role with RBR and/or STR, but the Italian outfit stunned the F1 paddock by axing both its 2011 drivers and pairing Vergne with Ricciardo for 2012.
Despite their relative inexperience - the pair had just eleven grand prix starts between them (and all on Ricciardo's side of the garage) - pre-season testing with the STR7 was promising, but Vergne was well aware of the pressure to succeed that follows any Red Bull protege into the top flight. Qualifying strongly in Melbourne was a good start, as was a points finish second time out in Malaysia, but the Frenchman, like Toro Rosso itself, was more often ‘bubbling under’.
Eighth place would be his best result, albeit one he achieved four times and three times from Belgium onwards, as Vergne ended his debut season 17th overall and ahead of his vaunted team-mate.
His performance, particularly in qualifying where he often exited in phase one, still wasn’t enough for some critics, who remained convinced that Vergne would be dumped for 2013, but the Frenchman remains under the Red Bull umbrella, and in an unchanged line-up, for at least one more year.
Jean-Eric Vergne tells Crash.net he believes he deserves a second chance with Toro Rosso after Daniil Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull