Another notable name in the Dubai Autodrome paddock this weekend in the shape of amiable Frenchman – and former Formula 1 driver – Jean-Eric Vergne. And once again, there’s plenty about his career we could discuss as he waits for the next stint in his first-ever endurance race. As a former Red Bull junior driver, Vergne spent time in Formula Renault 2.0 and GP3 as he ventured – and won – his way up the motorsport career ladder, culminating in a British Formula 3 title in 2010, a runners-up spot in Formula Renault 3.5, and, of course, time with Toro Rosso against both Daniel Ricciardo and Daniel Kyvat from 2012 and 2013. Even when his time with Red Bull came to an end, there have still been two years spent testing the Ferrari SF15-T and SF16-H ahead of their respective F1 debuts, as well as a new career path in Formula E.
His first thoughts however concern this weekend’s Dubai 24 Hours and a driver line-up even he didn’t know until two hours before the green flag…
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Jean-Eric, we believe this is your first race in Dubai…
“First endurance race, yes. I actually drove a race for Formula Campus Renault back in 2007 [a series he won that year, by the way]. But a lot has changed since then, so it’s probably just as well I don’t remember much about that!”
“This is actually my first GT race too. I did a test in the Toyota LMP1 [at Paul Ricard in 2015], but that was it. And the R.S.01 is great! Balance of performance means it’s a little bit slower – it’s a little too quick for GT3 – so it’s a bit difficult to drive, but it’s a lot of fun.”
What are your thoughts on the Dubai 24 Hours so far?
“To be honest, I’m quite surprised by the organisation. Our driver line-up [on the #28 GP Extreme Renaultsport R.S.01] was changed two hours before the start, because the organisers woke up on race day thinking our driver line-up was too strong. Maybe this happens a lot, I don’t know, but this is the first time this has happened to me. It’s crazy!
“But apart from that, it’s been very good. Obviously this is a new thing for me, and I’ve learnt a lot from the guys, since they are much more experienced in this type of racing than I am. There’s a lot more to learn from endurance racing, but that’s what I’m here for. I’m very eager to do learn, and yeah, I’m really enjoying myself.”
*As per the regulations, only two Pro drivers are permitted per entry in the top drawer A6-Pro category, meaning Jean-Eric Vergne were eventually partner Louis Deletraz, Josh Webster, Jordan Grogor and our man Bassam Kronfli in the #28 entry, while Nicky Pastorelli would swap to the sister #27 machine to partner Frederic Fatien, Tiziano Carugati and Stuart Hall.
Is there any pressure, as a former Formula 1 driver with Toro Rosso and as a reserve for Ferrari, for you to be competitive?
“Nope [Laughs]. I’m just here to enjoy myself, to learn, to race, and get as much experience as possible. Plus, we are probably the team that has got the most coverage in the media this weekend too, so that’s nice for GP Extreme.”
Clearly you’re no stranger to media coverage, following your years in F1 with Red Bull…
“Yeah. Obviously that’s a period of my life people ask me about a lot, but I think it was a really good time. I mean, thanks to them I could reach Formula 1 in the first place, and I was also teammate, at the time, to a driver who is now considered one of the best on the grid. Remember we were really close, and I actually beat him a few times in the points. So, yeah, it’s a shame I didn’t get to go to Red Bull Racing, but nevertheless I had a great time.
“If I say F1 is ‘unfinished business’, I would be quite a sad person today, which I’m not. Of course, when you look back at what I was doing against [Daniel] Ricciardo [at Toro Rosso in 2012], maybe that could have lead on to something great, but y’know, life goes on and there is not only F1 in life. I’m enjoying my racing today and I’m still young!”
The Red Bull Junior program is considered quite cut-throat in its promotion of young drivers. As an alumnus, would you agree with that?
“I think so. I mean…[pause]…look, even if you prove yourself like [Pierre] Gasly this year and still not go to Formula 1 [despite winning the GP2 championship in 2016 with Prema Racing, Gasly has not managed to secure a drive in the top tier for 2017]. And that’s the way it is with Red Bull: when you win a championship, you go in the second league, like football. Of course, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, so it is a little weird. But I don’t think too much about what might have been. My career is still very strong.”
Are there any particular highlights from your career hitherto that stand out for you?
“Yeah, the British Formula 3 title was one of my best years [in 2010]. I won many races, and with Red Bull, you always have that pressure to win, and move onto the next step. And that was very good for me, to perform under pressure. I think that was a very good school for me.
You’ve since moved on to Formula E, presumably with a championship title in mind in 2016/2017 with Techeetah…
“This year I think we have a car that can win us the championship. The first two races didn’t go according to plan but still there’s many races to go. I do feel we have the best car, I don’t think I’m one of the worst drivers on the grid(!) and, y’know, I plan to win races and fight for the championship. Even if I’m 50 points behind [reigning champion Sébastien] Buemi, everything is still wide open. There are still 10 races to go, and I’ll be putting pressure on the team – no more mistakes – and vice versa. It’s do-able, and we’re definitely in the fight.”
How much more growth do you think Formula E has left in it?
“I think there’s a huge amount of potential, yes. Now there are many constructors coming into the championship – Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes are all signed up – and the level of the drivers is extremely high. Every year, it’s just getting more and more competitive.
“To be honest, the interest from manufacturers is what makes the championship. ‘Electric’ is a new era, many manufacturers are selling more and more electric cars on the road, and, y’know, a championship that races right in the city centres is very interesting for everyone. It’s something that wouldn’t have worked ten years ago, but today, it’s a new chapter in motorsport, and thats exciting to be a part of.”
Even though you have a Formula E championship to chase this season, you’ve mentioned in interviews that you would like to take a stab at Le Mans. Is the Dubai 24 Hours a stepping stone to that further down the line?
“Oh yeah, I would definitely like to do more endurance racing. I mean, this weekend is a one-off this season, but it gives me a lot of experience. It’s totally different compared with Formula 1 or Formula E, and y’know, I understand some teams are a little scared to take drivers like me because I’ve always been used to driving for myself, and have a reputation to be quite bloody on-track(!). But I understand, in this kind of racing, you have actual teammates: you win for the team and not for yourself. This is really interesting to me. It’s useful, it’s fun, and I hope that I can get more opportunities like this in years to come.”