Jean-Éric Vergne has just reached the point in the article where I mentioned his “playboy reputation”, and makes a sound that I really hope is a chuckle.
A finger alights on the page. “...'speaking his mind and damn the sponsors’…?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “Because you’re independent, outspoken.”
“Ye-e-e-es,” says Vergne, a little dubious. “Maybe not about the sponsors.”
The article was one I wrote last year about the rise of Formula E. As the sport’s reigning champion, Vergne featured prominently.
Here’s the full paragraph quoted above: “If you want to put a face on your still-nascent sport then you could do a lot worse than Jean-Éric Vergne’s. A thrillingly visceral driver with a playboy reputation (I’d write ‘fast cars and faster women’ but it’s 2018), the Frenchman also retains the increasingly rare trait of speaking his mind and damn the sponsors.”
Sponsor-baiting (or not) aside, the central thrust remains valid: that in Vergne, Formula E has a driver with charisma to burn on and off the track, a champion who can only accelerate public interest in the sport. In five seasons, Formula E has evolved into a battery-powered behemoth: staging races around the world; forging partnerships with blue-chip brands; and attracting drivers and teams of ever-higher calibre. Comparisons with Formula One grow louder each year.
“It means a lot,” says Vergne of the FE vs F1 debate. “You’re not comparing a three-Michelin star restaurant to fast food, because there’s no comparison. If you compare two things it means they have potential, both of them.”
As you might have noticed, the photoshoot took place on a superyacht in Monaco – specifically the superyacht of Techeetah, the Chinese team Vergne has driven for since its 2016 inception. The following month I meet Vergne at his South Kensington apartment, a few days after victory in the Swiss ePrix put him 32 points clear atop the championship leaderboard, with only the New York double-header to go. No driver has ever retained the title.
That’s the benefit of trailblazing a new sport: you get to write its history as you go.
I’ve encountered Vergne several times over the past two years. The first was Monaco, May 2017. His friend and manager Carl Gurdjian was hosting a group of journalists for the weekend on behalf of MUMM champagne. Vergne crashed out mid-race – “oh yeah, with Piquet,” he says immediately. I spotted him at the after-party, hunched over a table with Gurdjian and a couple of friends. He looked despondent, like he’d rather be anywhere else. In two and a half seasons, he had yet to win a race in FE.
Vergne can’t remember his emotions that night – “it was two years ago” – but the description doesn’t surprise him. “I’m a lot more annoyed when I don’t win than happy when I win.” At that point, did he regret the move into FE? “No, not really. It was just a bad race for me.”
Prior to going electric, Vergne raced F1 with Toro Rosso. (He placed 17th, 15th, and 13th.) His debut was Australia 2012; he started on the grid next to his hero Michael Schumacher. It was the stuff of childhood dreams, but the car was uncompetitive, and in his own words Vergne “lost his personality” over three seasons in F1. He left Red Bull in 2014, confidence at a low ebb.
“After F1 I was on the bottom of the floor. It took some time to build up the confidence again. Then I was fast, but didn’t win a race, so there was this pressure of delivering, to prove to yourself that you could do it.”
In the race weekend, it feels like there is no air around me. I can’t breathe
That debut win arrived in Montreal in the final race of the 2016-17 season. By the time of our next meeting, Vergne had added two more to the ledger, and was closing on the 2017-18 championship. The venue was Paris: the local driver was being wheeled out to join a group of journalists for lunch at one of his favourite restaurants. “What makes you like this place?” I asked by way of small talk. He looked surprised. “I’ve never been here before.”
Later that afternoon we did a short interview. Vergne was sharp – very intelligent and a little spiky – funny, supremely self-assured and surprisingly self-aware. “Sometimes I can be unpolitical,” he admitted, “but that’s what people love. To see drivers saying what they have to say, written on a paper, it’s kind of boring.”
We ran the interview in our Best Job in the World series; Vergne laughs when I tell him. (“I couldn’t imagine to do anything better! I’m not sitting in the office every day.”) He went on to win the Paris race, and the title.
I was there that July weekend in New York, the weekend of the World Cup Final and a heat so intense it felt as though the very air was melting. During the grid walk, all the cars were covered with umbrellas. Vergne reclined against the hoardings, sunglasses on, very much in the zone.
“In the race weekend, it feels like there is no air around me. I can’t breathe. I look maybe calm from the outside, just because I’m too tense inside, I can’t let any emotion go out. I’m very tense. I have difficulty to breathe – not to breathe, but it feels like I need oxygen, and when I win that race finally I can breathe. That’s the feeling I have.”
He finished fifth, enough to secure the title. I can still picture him stood on the podium as ‘La Marseillaise’ rang out and Manhattan shimmered behind him. One hand on his chest, head tilted up to God, eyes closed in a reverie that looked almost divine.
“It felt more peace than anything else. Some drivers, when they win, they like to scream and jump and go absolutely crazy. I’m not like this. When I win, I just have this peace inside of me. That doesn’t even give me the energy to jump or scream. I’m just at peace with myself, with everything I’ve done, and that’s my reward.”
You enjoy the win, but then you start working to try and improve
Does this peace last? “No, no,” he says, sounding almost amused by the notion that it might. “It doesn’t last.”
How soon is it gone? “Pft. One day.”
Even after the championship? “Mah,” he sighs. (I take this to be the French equivalent of ‘meh’.) “Two days later I was already testing the car for this season. But anyway, I like it to be like that. You’re only as good as your last race, at least that’s what people say.”
Here follows a brief insight into what it takes to be the best, or even aspire to be the best. Motoring terminology aside, I suspect such a mindset can be applied to any field. “You win a race, fantastic, but everybody behind is pushing hard to catch you and to try to beat you. So if you stop working, or if you think that because you’ve won you’re going to win the other ones, this is when you’re wrong. You enjoy the moment, but then you start working to try and improve.
“Even when you win, there are other things that can be improved – with yourself, with the team, with the organisation, with the car setup, with the energy management. With many things. Just try to analyse all of this, and always be self-critical as much as you can; not to destroy you, but to try and get better.”
The championship marked the high point of his career to date, a moment of personal and professional vindication. Vergne describes it as “the first real goal that I have in my life that I’ve actually succeeded. I took a lot of maturity just by winning it. It shows me many things: that you can always get back from very bad situations. That the work always pays off. And even bad things happening in your life, maybe it’s for the better. That may only come later but you don’t know when.”
The photoshoot brings us full circle: Monaco again, 2019 now. Vergne no longer a winless tyro but the reigning champion. He was a relaxed presence, joking with the crew, discussing shot composition with the photographer. “I don’t feel different,” says Vergne of life as the king. “I’m still the same guy. It was important for me not to change.”
Your teammate is not your enemy. You need to help him
He hasn’t changed but he has certainly matured. The sometimes-reckless driving that characterised his early years has mellowed with experience. Last year’s championship was founded largely on his willingness to consolidate points in races where victory was impossible, races in which a younger Vergne might have gone for broke – and bust.
Little embodies this newfound zen better than in his relationship with his teammate. As a young racer, “I always grew up with the idea that you need to kill your teammate. He is your first enemy, and you need to be always better than him.” The arrival of André Lotterer to Techeetah prompted a change in mentality. Lotterer was a driver Vergne liked and respected. Rather than adversity, why not try cooperation?
The result was what he describes as “a relationship that never existed in motorsport” and, for Vergne, the title. “I was taught something that was wrong. Your teammate is not your enemy. You need to help him, because at the end of the day, what you give him always comes back. If you try to screw somebody, it will always come back to you in a way; and if you try to help somebody, it will come back in a good thing.
“I don’t think many people understand that; I don’t think any driver understands that. But it’s the truth. I’ve never been so good, while it is the first time that I don’t bother about trying to kill my teammate or hide information or play mind games. The first time that we help each other and really extract the best.”
A second title is within reach; it would be a remarkable achievement. “Yeah, it would,” says Vergne, clearly reluctant to discuss an achievement that hasn’t yet been sealed.
The law of attraction really exists. You don’t attract positive things by thinking negatively.
The first champ-champ of FE… “Yeah, it would be fantastic, but to be honest I’m not really thinking about it. I’m very Cartesian [a philosophy derived from René Descartes] – I’m just thinking about the next race in New York.”
Does he not visualise future success, focus his mind on victory until reality is forced to comply? Oh, he does – but “there is a massive difference between visualising your success and talking about it.”
Deal in actions, not words; but don’t be afraid to dream a little. As Vergne puts it, “The law of attraction really exists. You don’t attract positive things by thinking negatively.”
The next positive thing on his mind, aside from retaining the FE championship, is conquering Le Mans. Vergne has raced in the LMP2 class the past two years, and experienced varying disappointment in both. His G-Drive team was stripped of its victory in 2018 for using an illegal device on its refuelling rig, “something that was legal the race after.” This year, a wire malfunction resulted in 20 minutes repair work, and the loss of a likely victory.
“It was harder this year,” says Vergne. “At least last year we won, we were on the podium, we’d done the job. It was a good feeling, I have good memories. This year I don’t have any.”
Will he try again in 2020? “I don’t know. I think so – obviously I really want to be in the hypercar that will come in 2021. That’s the next target: to win Le Mans, the general Le Mans, that’s clearly the goal. I will try to find the best team to be given the opportunity to win.”
Then of course there is the oft-mooted possibility of a return to F1. Here Vergne is more circumspect. F1 might bring bigger visibility and a larger paycheck, but the chances of glory are minimal unless you’re driving a Mercedes, or just possibly a Ferrari. “The driver situation in Formula One is a bit alarming,” says Vergne. “You work all your career, you make all the good decisions, and if you’re not in a good car, pft, you waste a career by not even winning.”
He doesn’t blame Mercedes for the situation, nor any of the drivers; it’s simply a byproduct of the current regulations. Yet an uncompetitive car, in F1 or anywhere, holds no appeal for Vergne: he isn’t the type to make up the numbers on the grid. “If I realised I cannot win in Formula One, not because I’m bad but because I don’t have the car, and I would never be in the Mercedes or Ferrari, then I wouldn’t make the switch. Racing, competing, knowing I cannot win, is something I don’t understand.”
When it’s good then you think you are the king of the world, and when it’s bad you want to kill yourself
Anyway, there is no rush (for once). “I still have many years in front of me. I want to write the history of the sport because I think it’s a sport that will last for a very long time.”
Vergne keeps busy away from the track. He’s a founding partner in the racing esports team Veloce; a project to launch a new energy drink is in the early stages. “I have different things I like to do to keep my mind busy. I like business, in general. It’s like racing: you see an opportunity, you go for it, you try to make it happen. You visualise how you can be successful, with who to work, how to work. It’s something that keeps me working and alert.
“I’m trying to do other things so that racing doesn’t kill me. When it’s good then you think you are the king of the world, and when it’s bad you want to kill yourself. I think other things on the side, other interests, makes you have a healthier interest in your sport.”
Alarming words for the chasing pack. Vergne’s flat is decorated with trophies that commemorate past victories. In the years to come, he may have to invest in a warehouse.
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