Once a fighter, now a champion. There is little doubt that this year’s title is a sizeable redemption after the blow of being questionably left out of Formula 1 by Red Bull Racing. And it’s bold to say it took long for Vergne to pick his career back up. Having chosen electric racing as his path to new glory, it took him four years to strengthen his position in the series up to winning yesterday’s title, becoming the fourth different champion in as many seasons.
From as soon as 2017, his Formula E efforts were accompanied by Endurance racing stints, first with Manor in the WEC, then top-team G-Drive Racing in European Le Mans Series. He had even won Le Mans this year, until his #26 entry was disqualified for a refuelling-system infringement, and Vergne could not top off a trophy-laden 2018 campaign but had to settle for last year’s 8th place overall.
But why is he still missed in Formula 1 today?
Backed by no less than Red Bull Racing, Jean-Éric Vergne joined the circus with Toro Rosso in 2012 – having served as a test driver for the team the year before. During an inconsistent season often compromised by poor qualifying and some race crashes, he still managed to bring Toro Rosso 16 points – more than his teammate Ricciardo’s 10 - thanks to four 8th-place finishes, one of them conquered in Korea from 16th on the grid. His fighting attitude was displayed to the F1 world.
Despite improving his race-finish record with 6th in Canada, the 2013 season was not quite the progression Vergne needed, hampered by frequent retirements and outperformed by Ricciardo in qualifying and races – and in the end, also points. As a result, it was the Aussie who eventually took over the prized Red Bull Racing seat upon Mark Webber’s farewell.
Joined by new Red Bull young promise Daniil Kvyat for the 2014 season, Vergne raised the game. He was 6th in the first qualifying of the season, then 8th in the Melbourne race. JEV went on to collect five more points finishes, equalling his best result of 6th at the Singapore Grand Prix after a pounding late charge, overtaking Hülkenberg, Räikkönen and Bottas in the last four laps of the race. A further points finish came in Austin, where a questionable five-second penalty could not wash out a remarkable overtaking manoeuvre at the expense of Lotus’ Grosjean.
However, despite outscoring teammate Kvyat by a large fourteen points, it was the Russian promoted to replacement for Ferrari-bound Sebastian Vettel, and 17-year-old record-breaker Max Verstappen was called up to Formula 1 in the Toro Rosso seat alongside Carlos Sainz Jr., leaving Jean-Éric Vergne void of solutions but to abandon the circus.
Nowadays, while he says Hartley’s Toro Rosso call-up “makes me laugh, given that he's the one they fired to give me his seat in World Series by Renault” (via Motorsport.com), looking back at those F1 days with just a touch of regret, he adds: “Joining Formula E was the most difficult time of my career, when leaving F1. But with hindsight, I think it was the turning point of my career.
I changed a lot of things in the way I approach the sport. […] Outside the car I can now see everything with a different eye and as a global driver that's much better. I came into F1 really strong and confident but some people completely destroyed me.
"I finished eighth in my first race and there was a huge celebration in the team. They were super-happy. I walked back to the garage and I said, 'Hey, that was only eighth place. That's not what I want.'
"If I went back now, that's definitely something I'd change. I'd be happy with eighth place - and that was the strength of Daniel Ricciardo. He was always happy, regardless of what happened. That I think was my biggest weakness." (Motorsport.com)
With a shocking and popular F1 return seemingly unthinkable, Vergne has now definitely turned his sights onto different goals for present and future, some having just been reached, others within reach.
But his little mark on F1 history lives on.