Meet the 2012 rookies

Two drivers will start their first Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend. Jean-Eric Vergne and Charles Pic are the rookies of 2012 and will be keen to impress on debut at Albert Park. Although they both hail from France, they have had different roads to Formula One.

Jean-Eric Vergne

21 year old Frenchman, Jean-Eric Vergne, is the latest product of Red Bull’s ambitious young driver program. He has been nurtured by the drinks company throughout his junior career and has been gradually exposed to Formula One in the lead up to his first Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Vergne spent six years in European Karting before his first season of single seater racing in 2007. He competed in the French Formula Campus series (a racing category that goes under several different names – including Formula Four) and waltzed to the championship at his first attempt. This caught the attention of Red Bull who signed him onto their books and helped him move into Formula Renault.

Vergne raced in both the European and Western European Formula Renault Championships for two years, finishing runner-up in both series in 2009. His career took a big jump forward in 2010 when he moved into Formula 3, GP3, and got his hands on Formula One machinery for the first time.

Jamie Alguersuari and Daniel Ricciardo both won the competitive British Formula Three Championship with Red Bull support at the Carlin team. Jean-Eric Vergne followed in their footsteps, under pressure from Red Bull to replicate the results of his predecessors, and duly delivered. He won the 2010 Championship with thirteen race wins and seven other podiums. Vergne was also the fastest British Formula Three Championship driver in the prestigious Macau Grand Prix as well as the Zandvoort Masters of Formula 3 (where he set the fastest lap).

Amongst his Formula 3 commitments, Vergne also took part in the new GP3 championship during 2010. He only started four races for the Tech1 racing team but managed fourth place in one of the support races for the European Grand Prix.

Vergne impressed in the World Series by Renault during 2010 where he replaced fellow Red Bull driver, Brendan Hartley, partway through the season. He claimed a race victory at just his third attempt and finished eighth in the championship despite missing the first eleven races. Vergne was signed to compete in the series fulltime throughout 2011 and he narrowly missed out on the championship in the final round.

2010 marked the year Vergne got his first taste of Formula One. Red Bull gradually introduced Jean-Eric into Grand Prix racing over a period of two years. After a demonstration event in a Red Bull at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Vergne was Scuderia Toro Rosso’s representative at the Young Driver’s Test in Abu Dhabi. After that test much was made of Daniel Ricciardo’s lap in a Red Bull that was quicker than Vettel’s pole time. However, Jean-Eric also achieved a similar feat by lapping nearly a full second quicker than either Toro Rosso driver had during Abu Dhabi qualifying. Although track conditions were largely responsible, it was still a strong effort and worthy of the same acclaim that went to Ricciardo.

When he returned to the young driver’s test a year later, Jean-Eric set the fastest time in a Red Bull on all three days.

The young Frenchman does have some Grand Prix weekend experience having taken part in the Friday practice sessions at the Korean, Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix last year. Although that exposure working with Toro Rosso will be hugely beneficial to Vergne, he will still be the underdog against Daniel Ricciardo who is one year ahead of him on Red Bull’s talent ladder. Their battle at Toro Rosso is going to be electric because both are very highly talented and could be fighting over the seat that is expected to open alongside Sebastian Vettel.

Charles Pic

Eric Bernard was a Formula One driver who took part in 45 Grands Prix in the early nineties with Larrousse, Ligier and Lotus. In 2000 he gave his 12 year old godson a go kart for his birthday, and now that godson is about to line up on the grid for a Formula One Grand Prix as well.

Unlike Jean-Eric Verge, Charles Pic brings two years of GP2 experience with him into Formula One. Pic’s time in GP2 was solid although not inspiring (he finished fourth in last year’s championship) but he was able to show a few flashes of raw speed that he will be looking to build upon with Marussia. If nothing else he could be good to watch at Monaco.

Charles Pic won a few small Italian Karting titles before moving into Formula Campus in 2006 – the same bizarrely named French series that Vergne would enter a year later. He took eight podiums and a win on his way to third in the championship. It was a competitive showing since Pic finished with more than double the number of points scored by the driver who ended up fourth. A year later he would race in the European and French Formula Renault series and would finish third and fourth in those respective championships.

It was during these early single seater forays that Pic developed a habit for winning the occasional race, but never getting anyway near a championship. This has continued throughout his entire junior career.

In 2008 Pic moved into another variant of Formula Renault, this time the premier Formula Renault 3.5 series (part of the World Series by Renault. Confused?). He won the most prestigious round of the championship by claiming a dominant victory on the slippery wet streets of Monaco. He finished sixth in the championship as the highest placed rookie, and stuck around for another season which he finished in third.

With some help from his French sponsors, Charles Pic moved into GP2 in 2010. He started in the Asian series and impressively won a race in Bahrain, but again was inconsistent enough to challenge the championship leaders. His time in the main GP2 series started perfectly with a victory in the very first race, but he would only score one other podium all year and finished up tenth in the final standings.

Last year Pic won two more races but was still inconsistent enough to challenge for the title. It is perhaps worth noting that one of his two 2011 victories in GP2 came at Monaco, a circuit that he has now conquered more than once.

The 22 year old got his first run in a Formula One car last November during the Abu Dhabi young drivers test. He was a few seconds off the car’s ultimate pace but did well enough to ensure that he was signed by Marussia for the 2012 season.

Charles Pic is arguably the weakest link on the 2012 Formula One grid and it would be no surprise if he was later replaced by another youngster offering more cash. Having said that, Pic has raced in GP2 for two seasons and has claimed a number of wins in the series. That gives him a better junior record than some other drivers, such as Kamui Kobayashi, and he has also shown the confidence to attack a tricky circuit like Monaco. Pic will be fighting to prove that he is not out of his depth in Formula One.

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