Toro Rosso's confirmation of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo as its drivers for next year has set up an exciting battle — but has either shown the potential to become Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull successor?
Vergne and Ricciardo are the most recent rising stars of the successful Red Bull young driver development scheme, out of which Vettel himself grew, and both their performances this year have mixed sparkle with disappointment, pace with mistakes. But both now have a big opportunity.
The Red Bull route is one of a number of programmes run by different F1 teams and offers significant benefits, with drivers well supported as they rise through the ranks. But it is also hard graft, heavy on commitment and ultimately pretty cutthroat if things don't work out.
Some 29 drivers and counting have been involved in the team's junior programme, with 13 of them reaching Formula One. It's a good ratio, but aside from Vettel most have fallen short once they've overcome that final hurdle. This time, things could be different.
Before Toro Rosso arrived on the grid, the programme produced too many stars with not enough space to fit them in F1. In 2005, one of the Red Bull Racing seats even had to be shared between Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi, with Scott Speed in the third driver role.
Since 2006, however, when Toro Rosso was formed out of Minardi, Red Bull has had the perfect proving ground to vet potential lead drivers before taking the gamble and slotting them into their lead team.
Liuzzi and Speed were Toro Rosso's drivers in its first two years but Speed was dropped in the latter part of 2007 and Liuzzi was out the door at the end of that year. Vettel was the man to replace Speed and he proved to be the first transition success story, graduating to the top team a year later.
But so far, Red Bull are still waiting for that second success from Toro Rosso.
Sebastien Bourdais joined in 2008 but was dropped mid-way through 2009, replaced by Jaime Alguersuari. At the start of 2009, Sebastian Buemi stepped in to begin a partnership that would last three years. But after neither showed enough potential, both were cut free last year.
That decision shows the hard-nosed world at Red Bull. Perform or you're out.
Even though Red Bull spent a lot of time and money developing both of their careers, it has enough resources to cut its losses and try again. And try again is what it is doing with Vergne and Ricciardo.
There was talk of one graduating to Red Bull at the end of this year, but while both have proven strong credentials neither is quite ready yet, and it would be wrong to rush.
Ricciardo, given his one-year age advantage and half-season of extra experience (albeit with HRT), was seen as the most likely lead but Vergne has been a good match and the exciting young Frenchman is, in fact, now ahead on points.
Ricciardo has bettered Vergne in qualifying 13-4 and has finished in the points in five races while Vergne has three points finishes, but better results with three top-eight places to his name.
Both have been let down by the car this year, which has not given either much chance to shine, and perhaps it was because the pair are so closely matched that neither was asked to step up this year.
It is, however, highly likely that one will be asked to do so at the end of next season.
Behind them, plenty of drivers are waiting in the wings - Carlos Sainz Jr, Daniil Kvyat, Alex Albon, Callan O'Keeffe, Stefan Wackerbauer and Antonio Felix da Costa are all on the books — but all are some way away from an F1 berth even with Toro Rosso right now.
So Vergne and Ricciardo are Red Bull's big hopes and unless there are big changes at Red Bull in 2014, there will be only one winner. Right now, though, the jury's out on which that will be.
Vettel showed how off-season commitment can make or break a season when he famously tested the new Pirelli tyres in 2011. Likewise, for Vergne and Ricciardo, any way of stealing some small advantage in the off season could pay off in spades next year.
So, now the second-year deal is done, it will be interesting to see what commitments each makes in the off-season as they prepare to go head-to-head to hit the big time...
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