Is Daniel Ricciardo the natural successor to fellow-Aussie Mark Webber in the most prized seat in Formula 1 – at Red Bull Racing?
One man with the potential to scupper those plans is Ricciardo’s own current team-mate, French rookie, 21-year-old Jean-Eric Vergne. ‘JEV’ has a motorsport CV that closely mirrors Ricciardo’s.
Like the West Australian, Vergne is a British Formula 3 champion, and like Ricciardo, he’s been brought to Formula One through Red Bull’s Driver Academy run by former racer and motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko.
Since Toro Rosso unceremoniously dumped Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari after last season, the pair find themselves with the best opportunity possible to stake their claim for Webber’s seat when the seven-time Grand Prix winner decides enough is enough.
Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner said on Friday at Albert Park that the intra-team battle at Toro Rosso could be one of the highlights of the season, especially given the possible stakes.
“They are two of the most exciting youngsters to have been on the periphery of F1 over the last couple of years,” Horner said.
“They have the opportunity now to go head-to-head to show they have warranted that opportunity and investment that has been placed within them. It'll be fascinating to see how the two of them evolve, (and) we'll be keeping a very close eye on them.”
For the time being at least, Vergne is determined to keep his mind on the job at hand, which is building his Formula One experience. The Frenchman isn’t lacking in confidence – his comment that he would “do no worse than Webber” if he was given an opportunity in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team raised eyebrows last November – but for now, 58 laps of Albert Park on Sunday is his sole focus.
“I haven’t done one race and people are talking about the next season … it would be wrong for me to talk about the future yet,” he said.
“I know I have the right people taking care of me that I trust, and I trust that if I do a good job in the car then something good will happen to me. I will try to put the car in the best positions and do the best job possible, and then we will see what happens. The goal is to do a good job here with Toro Rosso.”
Vergne admits the competition with Ricciardo will be fierce this season, but says his familiarity with the Australian makes his adjustment to Formula One that little bit easier. The two raced against one another as far back as 2008 in the Formula Renault Eurocup, and the Frenchman says he appreciates Ricciardo’s straight-talking style.
“It is a nice thing to have Dan next to me firstly because he’s a nice guy and he’s a guy I know really well,” Vergne said.
“He’s a quick driver as well, and we have the same driving style so our feedback is quite similar, so that is good for the team. But I know that when you are in the car, your teammate doesn’t help you any more …”
Vergne’s first trip to Australia started slowly on Friday, where he was content to learn the Albert Park layout and get as many kilometres as he could first time out on Pirelli’s wet and intermediate tyres.
Vergne was 19th in opening practice and 20th in the second session, and said on Friday night that he’ll remember his first official day behind the wheel at a Grand Prix meeting for some time.
“It was pretty special, I have to say, maybe more than I thought it would be,” he said.
“I couldn’t put a word on my feeling. I want to enjoy every moment of this, but (on Saturday) I might have something in the stomach like, how do you say, some flies …”