French hopes raised of a long-awaited podium

© Jerome Pugmire, AP, 14 March 2012
© Toro Rosso

Jean-Eric Vergne was probably too young to care the last time a French driver won a Formula 1 race.

That was back in May 1996, when Olivier Panis won in Monaco. Vergne was only 6 years old then, two months younger than Charles Pic.

But Pic, Vergne and 25-year-old Romain Grosjean are the three French drivers hoping to end that barren spell this season, or at least get a podium place.

With no home Grand Prix since Magny Cours last held a race in 2008, and three years without a Frenchman in an F1 car, French fans have had little to cheer -- making the days of four-time champion Alain Prost, Jean Alesi and Panis seem like a lifetime ago.

"I am really glad the three of us could make Formula 1," the 21-year-old Vergne said. "I think it's really good for France."

The lack of Formula 1 drivers has somewhat stood out compared to French success in other aspects of motorsport.

"France have a champion in rally (Sebastien Loeb), a champion(ship-)winning team in rally (Citroen). They are champion of Formula 1 with Renault (for Red Bull). They are winners in Le Mans with Peugeot," Vergne said. "I think they just missed the French drivers in Formula 1, now they have them."

While the 22-year-old Pic and Vergne will race in F1 for the first time, with Toro Rosso and Marussia, respectively, Grosjean gets a second chance three years after his short-lived spell in the second half of the 2009 season.

Back then, he raced alongside two-time champion Fernando Alonso at Renault. This time he has Kimi Raikkonen, another former world champion, to guide him at Lotus.

© Lotus

"I'm lucky because you learn so much from drivers like that," Grosjean said. "To be racing alongside a former world champion and someone who is hungry and returning to Formula 1 will be a great experience."

Grosjean's previous F1 tenure in 2009 was unspectacular, however. He failed to get a point as Renault endured a horrible season. In his last three races of 2009, Grosjean finished 16th in Japan, 12th in Brazil, and 18th in Abu Dhabi.

Grosjean, who won the GP2 Series championship last year, thinks he is better prepared this time.

"The experience was very helpful for me to understand things and grow up from that point. So it was difficult, but very good as well," he said. "Let's say that I am a young driver who still has plenty of things to learn in Formula 1, but we are all expecting a good season."

Vergne started his racing career with karts in 2001, and moved to single-seater racing in 2007 with the French Formula Renault Campus championship, winning it comfortably at the first attempt with 10 podium places in 13 races. That was enough to earn him a place on the Red Bull Junior Team.

Vergne then clinched the British Formula Three championship in 2010 after taking 13 wins and 20 pole positions, gained his first experience of GP3 racing that year with Tech 1 Racing, then drove for Toro Rosso at the young driver test in Abu Dhabi.

Last year, he took part in the first Friday F1 practice session in three of the last four races, continuing his gradual progress.

© Marussia

But, while Vergne is happy to be part of the French return to the sport, he doesn't just want to be seen that way.

"Being French, German or Italian doesn't matter, as long as I do the job," said Vergne, who will race alongside Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo. "I'm doing (it) my own way and trying to get into Formula 1 just (by) myself."

Pic made his debut season in the main GP2 Series in 2010 and won two GP2 races last season. He then tested for Virgin at the young driver test and was swiftly signed up by the team, renamed Marussia, to race alongside Timo Glock.

"We naturally keep a close eye on the junior formulae, and Charles is certainly someone we have been watching over the past few years," Marussia team principal John Booth said. "He has an extremely mature head on young shoulders."

Pic, who also started out in karts, wants to show Marussia it made the right choice.

"I'm very happy to be making the step up to Formula 1," Pic said. "(Marussia) want to do things the right way and I can see that there is a lot of determination to succeed."


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