Formula One can be a ruthless world, as Daniil Kvyat found out to his cost earlier this week.
No more than two weeks after a combative display earned him a podium finish in the Chinese Grand Prix, Kvyat finds himself demoted from his seat at Red Bull to Scuderia Toro Rosso, his crash-strewn performance at his home race in Sochi proving his last act at the energy drinks company’s premier outfit.
Kvyat’s unceremonious fall from grace paves the way for 18-year-old Max Verstappen to seize a chance at Red Bull that, while seemingly inevitable for 2017, comes surprisingly soon for anyone on the outside looking in.
Although Red Bull and its driver development programme chief Helmut Marko will say that there is a clear rationale behind making the switch at this stage of the season, one cannot help but think that this is a rash move, and one that is unduly harsh on the Russian.
Taken as a collective, Kvyat’s performances this season have not set the world alight. His podium in China – which nearly saw beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo by less than seven seconds despite the Australian’s puncture early in the race – aside, the 22-year-old has consistently found himself wanting in terms of speed, with early exits from qualifying in Melbourne and Bahrain an early cause for concern.
Following the race in Shanghai, for which his robust, yet fair, first corner move on Sebastian Vettel earned him his place in the headlines, the spotlight fell on the youngster as he prepared to take part in his home race. There unfolded disastrous first lap in which he hit Vettel twice, consequently ruined Ricciardo’s race and earned a stop-go penalty, restricting him to a 15th place finish in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that Kvyat’s performance in Sochi is the reason for his demotion to Toro Rosso. All drivers make mistakes, and even a regime as bloodthirsty in their dealings with young chargers as the Red Bull Young Driver Programme does not simply make changes off the back of one torrid afternoon.
But even a sub-standard start to the season does not justify Red Bull’s decision. With 17 races to go, there was ample time for Kvyat to raise his game and begin to perform to a consistent level. Let us not forget that he actually beat Ricciardo in the drivers’ standings and came out 7-6 ahead when both drivers made it to the chequered flag last season. Ricciardo may have suffered more than his fair share of misfortune in 2015, but Kvyat was, more often than not, there to capitalise when needed and with strong drives in Monaco, Hungary and Mexico, justified the faith Red Bull showed by signing him to replace Vettel.
If the Russian was deemed not good enough for the senior team, then why was the switch not made before the start of the season? Verstappen has begun 2016 strongly, but is yet to reach the astonishing heights of his debut campaign that may well have earned him a promotion in the off-season.
There is talk that Red Bull has moved quickly to prevent potential suitors in Mercedes and Ferrari from snatching Verstappen’s signature, but was the Dutch prodigy likely to sign elsewhere with the promise of a race seat at the senior team in 2017? It would seem far-fetched, given the regulation changes that are set to come into play, giving Red Bull the chance to close the gap to the front of the field.
As things stand, the chances of Mercedes replacing Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg are extremely slim, while even if Kimi Raikkonen were to leave Ferrari at the end of the season, it would have been an extraordinarily adventurous move for a team which has been extremely cautious when it comes to signing inexperienced drivers to bolster their title assault with a teenager.
While that would not have staved off the risk of Verstappen signing a pre-agreement with another team for 2018, it is difficult to imagine that his signing of a new deal at Red Bull until 2019 to coincide with his promotion hinged solely on him leaving Toro Rosso with immediate effect.
Other reasons given for the switch include the opportunity to better evaluate all four drivers within the Red Bull stable, and the increasing friction between Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr at Toro Rosso. Both seem plausible, but with the vast reserves of data available to all teams nowadays, does a worthwhile comparison between drivers really depend on them driving the same car?
Verstappen and Sainz Jr may be at loggerheads, but is a team marshalled by such experience in the form of Franz Tost and the recently arrived John Booth really unable to control the situation?
The fundamental reasons for the move are simple. Red Bull clearly see Verstappen as the future. That is why they went to such lengths to prevent him signing for Mercedes in 2014, by offering him a drive at Toro Rosso aged just 17. Kvyat, on the other hand, is clearly not seen as someone with world championship-winning potential.
Red Bull operates like a business. As Christian Horner stated in an interview at the Chinese Grand Prix: “We have a stable of four drivers and two are on loan at Toro Rosso. All the drivers are essentially on the same contract and we have the ability at any point in time to move things round should we so wish.”
They will argue that if Verstappen jumps into the senior team and is closer to the pace, or even at the same level as Kvyat to begin with, their decision will be the right one. But that does not make the timing, or manner of this switch seem fair.
Kvyat now has the opportunity to regroup and try to rebuild his Formula One career. The chance that he will race again for Red Bull is extremely limited, and with this now being his third season, it is difficult to imagine him remaining at Toro Rosso beyond the end of 2016, especially if Pierre Gasly performs well in GP2 and shows that he is good enough to drive in F1.
Good results over the rest of the year may put him in the frame for a Renault drive, albeit with competition from Esteban Ocon and Sergey Sirotkin, while Haas could be seen as another possibility, with Romain Grosjean possibly on the shopping lists of the big teams and Esteban Gutierrez having failed to live up to expectations so far this season. Otherwise, Kvyat’s place on the grid in 2017 may well come down to whether he can muster enough sponsorship to bag a drive with one of the other, and less well off, midfield runners.
It would be a huge shame if Kvyat were to find himself without a drive next year. He may not be on the level of the very best in the sport, but at just 22 he has time on his side and has the potential to at least be a very capable asset for one of the midfield teams for many years to come.
Red Bull’s sink-or-swim strategy has cost several drivers their Grand Prix careers in the past. Just ask Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne to name but three. Let us hope that the name of Daniil Kvyat will not soon be added to that list.