'The Third Man' needs to look elsewhere

By on Monday, July 22, 2013
Scuderia Toro Rosso

Scuderia Toro Rosso

The driver market for 2014 currently hinges on who Red Bull Racing sign to partner reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo are the front runners while Jean-Eric Vergne is lurking in the wings as the third, outside, contender.

Raikkonen is the proven world champion, the man who is ultra-consistent, ultra-quick and also said to fit perfectly with Red Bull’s image. Ricciardo is comparatively inexperienced, but has shown strong pace at the perfect time and his selection would also justify Red Bull’s continued financial support of their young driver programme. Ricciardo is a driver created by Red Bull for their own purpose, Raikkonen is not. But while there has been sizeable debate over whether to pick Raikkonen or Ricciardo, it ignores the third man: Vergne.

Vergne is halfway through his second season in the sport. He beat Ricciardo in the championship by 16 points to 10, and is two points ahead of his team-mate approaching the Hungarian Grand Prix. But is is Ricciardo, not Vergne, who is the better placed within Red Bull.

Ricciardo has captured the eye with some high points and his approach in resolving problems has been compared to the approach adopted by Vettel. For Red Bull to pick Ricciardo for the young driver test shows that Vergne is very clearly second in line at Toro Rosso, in spite of his superior championship position. Therefore it seems extremely unlikely that Vergne will be promoted to Red Bull in 2014, which begs the question: what is the point of staying with the squad into 2014?

There’s a whole set of scenarios that could happen, but if Ricciardo isn’t promoted then he is likely to remain Red Bull’s choice for the future. Then there’s Antonio Felix da Costa. The Portuguese driver is one of the highly rated youngsters coming through Red Bull’s programme and his current comparatively lowly championship position in Formula Renault 3.5 owes more to misfortune than his own ability.

So if you’re Vergne, you’ll more likely be behind Raikkonen, Ricciardo and possibly even Da Costa in the eyes of the senior management.

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Vergne has had difficult moments throughout his brief Formula 1 career – especially his lack of qualifying pace – but to discard him as a prospect in the sport would be a naïve approach.

He has a deft feel for tricky conditions, demonstrated most prominently in Monaco and Canada this season. He’s also been beset by misfortune throughout the year: four retirements and only one of them partly his fault.

Vergne’s aggressive style is at odds with Ricciardo’s smoother approach, hence why it’s rare for the duo to be evenly matched across a race weekend. One usually holds the advantage and for Red Bull, it seems they prefer what Ricciardo is doing.

Parting from Red Bull would be a major decision for Vergne, especially considering the financially perilous state of the sport. But looking elsewhere may be more profitable than being devoted to Red Bull. After all, Red Bull shared little sentiment when dispensing with Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi and others. A midfield team may see Vergne as a prospect whose rough edges can be rounded.

For ‘the third man’, time may be running out.

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