The battle of succession? How Jean-Eric Vergne v Daniel Ricciardo is hotting up
Kimi Raikkonen may be the blockbuster name linked to Red Bull for 2014, but Sky F1's Mark Hughes explains how the developing duel for supremacy at Toro Rosso could yet take on major significance
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 12/06/13 10:34am
With the general assumption of Mark Webber leaving Red Bull next year not being seriously challenged either by the team or the driver, the performance of the two drivers in the group's junior team - Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo - has assumed a much more highly charged significance.
It is quite feasible it will be neither: Kimi Raikkonen's name continues to be associated with the team but the word in the paddock is that Team Principal Christian Horner and Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz cannot agree whether that would be a good idea or whether it would risk de-stabilising a team that has won the last three Drivers' and Constructors' world titles. Even if that gets resolved in favour of the idea, there's still the matter of whether Raikkonen would want to come.
But if any Webber replacement is to be drawn from Toro Rosso, which would it be? Had that question been posed at the end of last season it would clearly have been Ricciardo. In their first full F1 seasons (Ricciardo had a half-season head-start in 2011), Vergne edged it on points but that was largely circumstantial and Ricciardo was comprehensively the better qualifier at 15-4.
This year Ricciardo is only narrowly ahead in qualifying, at 4-3, and Vergne has 13 points, six more than Ricciardo. Vergne is also the man in form at the moment, having scored an excellent sixth place in Montreal after out-qualifying his team mate for the second successive event. Memories are short in F1 though - Ricciardo drove a superb race to seventh in China.
It is far from established yet which of them is the better prospect, but there does seem to be a pattern underlying their respective performances. Vergne has what Technical Director James Key describes as 'a more aggressive style' in the way he drivers the car. Less of a technical perfectionist than Ricciardo, his style does seem to lend itself particularly well to the improvisation necessary in adapting to a wide range of handling traits as the tyres wear and degrade through a race.
Ricciardo is smoother and more precise, perfect for squeezing the maximum potential from the car and tyres over one lap of qualifying. In achieving his sixth place on the grid at Bahrain last year, the then Technical Director Giorgio Ascanelli said it was a lap right up there with those he used to see in Vettel's latter days at the team.
Watching them both out on track, the differences in their approach is most evident in slow corners. Vergne is very at ease with the car sliding around him and will often use the brakes to get the car to begin turning even before he's fully applied the steering lock, unloading the rear so it slides and helps give him direction change. It is a particularly effective technique in conditions of low grip - and it's quite usual to see him quicker than Ricciardo in the early stages of the weekend, before the track has cleaned up. Ricciardo comes into his own as the track grip increases when his greater use of the tyres' braking grip - without much overlap between braking and cornering - comes into its own.
When there's more braking grip to be had from the track, he seems to find more of it than Vergne and this then has tended to more than make up for any time lost in having to use more steering lock to get the car turned.
Vergne's adeptness in low-grip conditions is underlined when looking in a bit more detail at those 2013 qualifying statistics. On all three occasions that Jean-Eric has out-qualified Daniel - Australia, Monaco and Canada - the surface has been either damp or wet.
In every dry session Ricciardo has been faster. Rain did feature during Malaysian qualifying too, but only in Q3. Neither Toro Rosso had made it through to Q3 and in the dry Vergne failed to graduate from Q1. There is a very definite pattern there and it would seem that part of Vergne's current momentum is based very much on rain effecting qualifying in each of the last two events.
Perhaps he will take confidence from this run of form and carry it into dry qualifying in races to come. But until then, Ricciardo's traits have him looking the more robust performer. The swingometer between them could decide who is in what might again be F1's fastest car next year. These mid-season races could therefore come to define their respective F1 careers.