Last time out at the Buenos Aires ePrix, Jean-Eric Vergne extended an unwanted Formula E record. After 37 laps of the Puerto Madero circuit, he remained the driver who’d set the most poles, scored the most podiums and led the most laps without winning a race.
But post-race the four-time pole sitter was far from the doleful, dejected figure that he cut throughout most of Season 2. In fact, since moving teams there’s been a reinvigorated, almost effervescent JEV in the paddock.
When Vergne joined DS Virgin Racing for Season 2 it seemed an excellent fit. Although that victory remained elusive, since joining the championship midway through Season 1 with Andretti, he’d been one of the series’ top performers, and he was among many pundit’s pre-season favourites.
But the car was overweight and hard to handle and the relationship between him and the team never recovered from the unusual turn of events in Buenos Aires, when after a bout of food poisoning, the team decided that Vergne was unfit to drive and attempted to bar his entry. Vergne, on the other hand - after a night he’d rather forget - was feeling fine and raring to go. Only after a tense showdown was the decision made to allow him to compete…
“I’ve never seen in motorsport someone stopping you from driving when you are a little bit ill. It was unbelievable,” he says. “I was in shock. And after then I said it was my last season with those people.”
By the Paris ePrix he’d finally got his head around the tricky DSV-01. Second place in that race, following a wheel-banging altercation with team-mate Sam Bird, was backed up by the fourth pole of his Formula E career next time out in Berlin, which in turn was succeeded by another podium in London.
A switch to TECHEETAH, a new Chinese-backed team that had taken over the Aguri entry, wasn’t the obvious choice on paper. But the team had a deal to run the all-conquering Renault powertrain. They were late in getting started – they had just a single shakedown run prior to the two official pre-season group tests – but nevertheless, it was instantly clear that there was an awful lot of pace and potential in the package.
Robin Frijns’ crash in Hong Kong prevented JEV from showing the team’s potential in qualifying at the season-opener, while technical problems hit him during the race. He was quickest in the group stages in Marrakesh, but a mix-up in the pits prevented him from getting on track in Super Pole. A pitlane speeding penalty then scuppered hopes of a podium finish, but he at least bagged the team’s first points.
Highly experienced team manager Dave Stubbs joined TECHEETAH prior to Buenos Aires and the qualifying pace was evident once again. This time, however, he brought the car home second. He even led for a while in the opening stint after passing Lucas di Grassi on track, but he couldn’t keep Sebastien Buemi at bay as the reigning champ assumed his usual position out front. Still, there were a lot of positives in equaling his best Formula E result to date.
“When we arrived, in the garage there was a really good atmosphere, much better than in Marrakesh or in Hong Kong where it was just a mess, we were missing tools and things,” he reveals. “But now I think the team is running smoother and I can tell a lot of improvement in the everyday life of the team. I’m very happy with the job that has been done by everyone in the team so far. Everybody knows we have a good car, everybody knows what I can do. Now we are just being patient, that’s all we have to do.”
A happy JEV had been a rare sight, not just during his DS Virgin Racing odyssey, but throughout almost all of his Formula 1 career that preceded his move to the all-electric racing series.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon, but it’s a situation many other young drivers have had difficulty facing up to in the past: during their junior careers they become very accustomed to winning. Almost all of the drivers who make it to Formula 1 were multiple champions in the Byzantine world of karting, something they inevitably repeated as they progressed up the junior single-seater ladder.
Wins follow wins and beget championships. Winning championships puts them on the radar of the best teams on the next rung of the ladder and having the best team is the nearest thing to guaranteed success and thus more wins and championships follow.
Then Formula 1 comes calling. At any given time there are usually only 18-24 seats at the top level, and of those, probably only a maximum of six have even a faint hope of winning. Suddenly, from going into every race knowing that there’s a decent chance of winning if everything falls into place, now they face a situation where even if they produce the race of their life, it might only be enough for 11th place – not even a point to reward their effort.
And this was exactly the situation in which Vergne found himself when Red Bull – having backed him to title-winning success in British F3 and a near-miss in Formula Renault 3.5 – placed him in a Toro Rosso that was at best a top-eight car – and by absolutely no means a potential race winner.
And all of a sudden, after being in with a shout of taking home a trophy from every race he entered, Vergne found himself having to readjust his sights on what was deemed success.
“If I could go back to the past, that would be the biggest thing I would change,” he admits. “I was so competitive, sometimes maybe too much. I remember very well my first race: I didn’t score points but I think I was 11th, very close to the points so I was happy and I knew I could do the job straight away. The second race in Malaysia, in the rain, I did a really good job and I finished in the points [eighth]. And when I came back to the garage it felt like it was a win for the team. But I was not happy in myself and since then it was such a weird feeling of going for a weekend and knowing that our win would be an eighth place, which felt so wrong for me and I got very blocked by this and I think if I could to go back – and of course there are things that I did bad – this is definitely the biggest thing I would change. I would change my spirit. And I would arrive at Toro Rosso and get 10th, I would be happy with 10th.
“My team-mate Daniel [Ricciardo] was a lot different from me and that’s why he made the difference I believe, being happy being eighth or whatever. That was a quality I had before – when I was finishing second in Formula 3, I was not happy. I wanted to win, and if I was winning I wanted to do the fastest lap and it was never good enough. And that’s something I never learned in Formula 1, that it was good enough and sometimes it would have helped me to have this kind of spirit.”
Vergne found himself exposed to the harsh realities of the cut-throat nature of Formula 1 in 2014 when he missed out on a Red Bull drive to Daniel Ricciardo, whom he’d closely matched during their two seasons together at Toro Rosso. A year later, he was out of a drive all together, despite having comprehensively out-performing new team-mate Daniil Kyvat.
Drivers in the Red Bull Driver Development programme have all their affairs handled by Dr Helmut Marko and his team. This works perfectly when they are in favour and part of the programme, but leaves them unprepared for what comes next when they are shown the door. As a result, Vergne found himself at a loose end when Red Bull let him go.
“When you are in Red Bull you are in some kind of a bubble and you’re somehow cut from the world,” he says. “So I started working with [veteran driver manager] Julian Jakobi and he called me on a Monday night and said ‘look I’ve got this opportunity for a race.’ I had no plans for the future – I had a few things but nothing concrete – and he said ‘I think you should do that race and see if you like it.’ So. I said ‘OK’, and one hour later I was receiving my flight ticket for the morning to go to Punta del Este! So no simulator, no preparation. I hadn’t seen the first races so I had no idea what it was, so I was surprised to see the styles, I didn’t know anything! I was just aware that you had to change the car in the middle of the race. It turned out pretty well and Andretti wanted to keep me for the rest of the season and I was more than happy to stay because I saw the potential of the championship and it’s a good place to be.”
Vergne was running a strong second on his debut in Punta when suspension failure hit late on. He was on pole again in Miami and Moscow, but neither of these yielded a podium. However, he did take a solid second to Nelson Piquet Jr in Long Beach and was third in the first of the two races in the London Season 1 finale.
As previously mentioned, the moved to DS Virgin in Season 2 didn’t pan out as planned, but the promise of the TECHEETAH package this season is clear and Vergne is enjoying his racing as much as ever.
“I feel so much happier than last year,” he admits. “Last year there was a car that I honestly didn’t know how to drive. I had 40 kg extra in the rear. I was just not feeling confident with everything that happened with the team.
“OK, the first two races didn’t go to plan but we are a new team, we are building up for the future. I’m here for the long-term, everybody is extremely motivated, we have one of the best powertrains, we’ve got extremely good people in team – engineers, mechanics – everybody is very competitive and competent and I know we will succeed. I am in very good spirits. OK, Buemi has a big lead, but the championship is very long and motorsport is like this. That’s the beauty of the sport and I’m very confident we will have strong results.”
Vergne will have his next opportunity to win a Formula E race when the series returns with the Mexico City ePrix on April 1.