Jean-Eric Vergne's Formula One future hangs by a thread.
After three seasons at Red Bull's sister team, Toro Rosso, Vergne is being replaced for 2015 by Max Verstappen.
The Frenchman has been with Red Bull since 2007, and with no seat available at the main team it looks like the relationship will come to an end.
He has less than six months to find a new drive and salvage his F1 career.
Vergne has been active in single-seater competition since 2007. That year, he won the entry-level Formula Renault Campus France title with six wins from 13 races, and he was invited to join the Red Bull Junior Team.
He moved up to Formula Renault 2.0 in 2008, coming sixth in the Eurocup standings and fourth in the Western European series. The following year he was second in both championships, beaten to the titles by Albert Costa.
Still with Red Bull backing, Vergne switched to the British Formula Three championship for 2010. Following in the footsteps of future team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, he won the title at the first time of asking with 13 wins from 30 races.
It was an impressive display against a strong field. Vergne also drove six races in Formula Renault 3.5, winning once and scoring three further podiums.
A full year in the series followed in 2011. After a season-long duel, Vergne was pipped to the title by his more experienced team-mate, Robert Wickens.
He had timed his arrival at the F1 door just right—Toro Rosso were ready to clear out their existing drivers, and Vergne took one of their seats.
Paired with Ricciardo, Vergne's major weakness soon became apparent—qualifying.
He was beaten 15 times on Saturdays by Ricciardo, only coming out on top on five occasions.
But for all his qualifying difficulties, Vergne proved a more than capable racer, out-scoring the admittedly more consistent Ricciardo by 16 points to 10.
The qualifying tale continued in 2013—Ricciardo won the battle 15-4 with an average grid slot of 10.68. Vergne's average was a disappointing 13.63. per F1Fanatic.
This time, the poor starting positions hampered Vergne more. Though the Frenchman usually had good pace and more often than not made decent gains from his grid slots, Ricciardo scored on seven occasions, while Vergne managed just three top-10 finishes.
The Australian's superior single-lap pace and marginally better consistency was probably what prompted Red Bull to promote him to the senior team ahead of Vergne.
JEV was retained at Toro Rosso for a third season, where he'd race alongside Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat.
Twelve rounds in to the current season, the pair seem quite evenly matched. It's 6-6 in qualifying, and while Kvyat has led a few more laps (231 to 228), Vergne has 11 points to his team-mate's eight.
By the end of 2014, Vergne will have spent three seasons at Toro Rosso—a total of 58 grands prix. At any other constructor, that wouldn't be a substantial number.
But Toro Rosso are not an ordinary team.
They don't exist to score maximum points for themselves, or to finish as high in the constructors' championship as they can.
Their sole reason for being is to act as a proving ground for young, up-and-coming talent from the Red Bull Junior Team—then to pass them on if they seem to have true superstar potential.
Those that don't are replaced.
Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Sebastian Vettel, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi and Daniel Ricciardo all passed through Toro Rosso on their way to whatever lay in their future.
Two of them—Vettel and Ricciardo—did enough there to progress to the main Red Bull team. Both are now established among the lucky few drivers able to sell themselves on talent alone.
Their place in F1, next season and beyond, is assured.
But those who don't make the grade, and who don't get the promotion, tend to suffer a very different fate. Their long-standing relationship with Red Bull and its associated companies leaves them little chance to form connections with other potential sponsors.
That's a huge problem in today's F1. In modern times, all but the very top drivers are expected to at least bring a couple of minor backers.
One or two logos and a few million pounds is the minimum, and the more you have the higher your chance of landing a decent drive.
But with the Red Bull rug pulled out from under them, former Toro Rosso drivers don't have any. Pitted against a legion of drivers with both talent and sponsors, they almost always vanish from the grid, never to return.
That happened to Speed, Alguersuari and Buemi.
Only Liuzzi endured, but he left way back in 2007 when money was more plentiful and pay drivers less powerful.
The Italian drove for the fledgling Force India, then HRT, before he too was kicked to the kerb as F1's financial crisis deepened in 2012.
That crisis is even deeper today.
Vergne is definitely good enough to remain in F1. His performances against Ricciardo in 2012 and 2013 have to be seen in a very positive light given the way the Australian has seized the upper hand on Vettel this year.
But fellow Red Bull reject Alguersuari was also good enough to stay on the grid. So were Paul di Resta, Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi.
And all lost their places because they didn't have sufficient backing. Kobayashi raised funds to buy his way back in, but he appears to have run out of funds and is edging ever closer to a second, probably final, exit.
The Red Bull Junior Team and Toro Rosso do great things for young drivers by giving them an opportunity.
But for those drivers who don't quite make it to the Red Bull senior team—either through lack of brilliance or lack of space—it can be a curse.
They have nothing to fall back on when the Red Bull rug is pulled away.
Vergne deserves to be in F1 next year. There's little to suggest he's got the potential to be a world beater, but he could certainly do a solid job in the manner of Felipe Massa, Mark Webber or David Coulthard.
But unless he can attract a decent sponsor to a midfield team—like Massa did for 2014—he almost certainly won't be around when the 2015 season kicks off in Australia next March.
Esteban Gutierrez, Pastor Maldonado and Max Chilton will be there instead.
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