Sebastian Vettel’s bombshell announcement to leave Red Bull Racing at the end of the 2014 season has vacated an elusive seat at Toro Rosso with as many as three drivers in contention for a drive alongside 17 year old teenage Max Verstappen. Helmut Marko, who oversees Red Bull stable of young drivers has a tough job in his hands to choose between his current driver Jean Eric Vergne, newly crowned Formula Renault 3.5 world champion Carlos Sainz Jr and Alex Lynn who is at the brink of sealing the GP3 title.
Jean Eric Vergne
First up is the case of Jean Eric Vergne - the man overlooked for a Red Bull seat twice in two straight Formula 1 seasons. Red Bull have a clear cut policy when it comes to young drivers. You get to spend near about two seasons in a midfield team. If you are able to prove you are ‘championship material’, a drive at the flagship outfit is waiting for you. Else, the door will be shown just as easily.
Vergne was ousted by Toro Rosso in their original 2015 line up revealed in August, leaving the Frenchman out in cold with little sponsorship to grab a seat in a rival outfit.
However, Vettel’s departure from Red Bull and the subsequent vacancy at Toro Rosso has served as a lifeline for the 24 year old with team boss Franz Tost confirming in Russia that he’s very much in contention for a 2015 race seat.
One may argue that why Vergne should be allowed to drive a Toro Rosso for a fourth straight season, if(according to Red Bull) he's not as good as Ricciardo and doesn't have the potential of rookie Daniil Kvyat, his current teammate at the Faenza based team.
His supporters, however, will be pointing out his resurgence in the second half of the season. At the Singapore Grand Prix, the Frenchman made his way up the field to equal his career best finish of sixth place, despite being slapped with two separate penalties. At Russia, he may not have had the one lap pace of his teammate, but it was he who finished ahead on Sunday. While Kyvat was overtaken by drivers left and right, Vergne moved up the field on the first lap before slipping down the order himself while saving fuel. If the Frenchman continues his run of strong race results and improve his one lap pace, where he trails Kvyat 7-9 , he might well get a third chance.
Another thing that might favour Vergne is the fact that Red Bull might want a benchmark to review the performance of Max Verstappen who moves to Formula 1 after just one season in single seaters. The Dutch finished third in Formula 3 championship behind Lotus young driver Esteban Ocon and Britain’s Tom Blomqvist.
Carlos Sainz Jr
Earlier this year, Helmut Marko asked Sainz Jr to win the Formula Renault 3.5 series, if he wishes to make his F1 dream come true. A few months later, Sainz may well remind Marko of his words. The Spaniard has completely dominated the season with podium finishes in each and every round of the series.
Cost of competing in World Series by Renault is significantly lower than F1’s official feeders series, GP2 and GP3 and many are questioning the quality of the field of the latter. WSR, in contrast, continues to attract great talent with 2013 champion and McLaren protege Kevin Magnussen being a fine example of the quality of drivers this series can deliver.
In August, Sainz was left frustrated when Max Verstappen was chosen over him in Toro Rosso’s original line up and has now made it clear that he would leave Red Bull’s drive programme, if he was snubbed of a drive for the second time.
At 21, Alex Lynn is the oldest member of Red Bull’s driver programme but on the plus side has more experience than rivals Sainz and Formula Renault 3.5 series runner up Pierre Gasly. Lynn has a 47 points lead going into the final round of GP3 world champion with only 48 points on offer in the Middle East country. The Brit can boast about his victory in the prestigious Macau Formula 3 race.
Lynn would hope to follow in the footsteps of Daniil Kvyat who made the jump to Formula 1 from GP3 and now finds himself in Red Bull’s main outfit. Similarly, Valtteri Bottas has showed that drivers need not necessarily take part in GP2 series despite the significant difference in the performance of cars in the two feeder series.
The Brit, however, is at a slight disadvantage to Sainz, having never tested a Formula 1 car to date.
A seat at Toro Rosso is a gateway to an elusive drive at Red Bull - the team that dominated the sport for the past four years. The energy drinks company is spending millions on their young drivers programme and would reject drivers who don't have the potential to be the next Sebastian Vettel. While Vergne offers experience, Sainz Jr and Lynn are two talented young men destined for a great career. Both have emerged winners in two highly rated feeder series, it's for Red Bull to decide which one will have an F1 seat next season and which one would be left contemplating. Vergne also has a decent chance of staying with Faenza based team in 2015.