Daniil Kvyat an unfortunate victim of ruthless Red Bull regime

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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.

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Max Verstappen will make his debut for Red Bull at the Spanish Grand Prix

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.

Stephen D’Albiac

Driver Ratings: 2016 Australian Grand Prix

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In the first of what is planned to be a recurring feature throughout the 2016 season, I will give a brief summary of each driver’s race and give them a score out of ten. The scores will be added up throughout the season and will be used to calculate both mid-season and end of season driver rankings.

44) Lewis Hamilton (7/10) – Strong recovery following an awful start that left the polesitter sixth at the end of the first lap. Good use of strategy by his Mercedes team to help him back to second.

6) Nico Rosberg (7/10) – A fully deserved fourth win in a row for Rosberg. Kept calm after a poor start to jump Raikkonen in the pits before calmly staying within reach of Vettel to allow himself to take the lead when the German pitted.

5) Sebastian Vettel (7/10) – Strong drive from the four-time champion. Only deprived of victory through a poor call on strategy by Ferrari under the red flag. Mistake when chasing Hamilton towards the end the only blip in an otherwise fine performance.

7) Kimi Raikkonen (6/10) – Engine failure cost Raikkonen the chance of a podium finish after a strong first stint that saw him run second to teammate Vettel.

77) Valtteri Bottas (5/10) – An underwhelming first weekend of the season for the highly rated Finn. A poor showing in qualifying was followed by a low key run in the race that deserved little more than his eighth place finish.

19) Felipe Massa (6/10) – A solid start to the season for the veteran Brazilian, whose fifth place was the most that could have been achieved with a car that was lacking in ultimate pace.

3) Daniel Ricciardo (7/10) – The home favourite gave the locals plenty to cheer with a battling drive that saw him pull off several overtakes and set fastest lap en route to a charging fourth place.

26) Daniil Kvyat (5/10) – An inauspicious start to the season for the Russian, who failed to get underway after stopping short of his grid box and forcing the first start to be abandoned. Had already suffered a difficult Saturday after qualifying a disappointing 18th.

11) Sergio Perez (5/10) – Perez had looked like picking up where he left off in 2015 by outqualifying teammate Hulkenberg, but slipped behind the German at the start before late race brake troubles left him 13th.

27) Nico Hulkenberg (6/10) – A decent showing for Hulkenberg who, while lacking in race pace, started his season with a decent haul of points by coming home seventh.

20) Kevin Magnussen (6/10) – A strong recovery by Magnussen to fight back to 12th after an opening lap puncture, but the Dane struggled to assert himself in Melbourne having been outqualified by rookie teammate Palmer on Saturday.

30) Jolyon Palmer (7/10) – Britain’s latest Grand Prix driver enjoyed a strong debut, surprisingly outqualifying Renault teammate Magnussen before showing fine racecraft to make life difficult for several faster cars who came up behind him.

33) Max Verstappen (6/10) – The 18-year-old showed his petulance after a poor pit stop dropped him behind teammate Sainz Jr. Having qualified a stunning fifth, the Dutchman will be disappointed with tenth place after a spin late in the race.

55) Carlos Sainz Jr (6/10) – A solid drive by the Spanish youngster to make the most of a well-balanced Toro Rosso. A questionable strategy choice following the red flag gave him a ninth place finish which was less than he deserved.

12) Felipe Nasr (5/10) – On the evidence of Melbourne, Sauber have a lot of work to do to compete in the midfield this year, with Nasr enjoying an almost anonymous run to 15th place.

9) Marcus Ericsson (5/10) – A day to forget for the second Sauber driver, who was handed a drive-through penalty after his mechanics carried working on his car too late during the red flag before the Swede retired with driveshaft failure.

14) Fernando Alonso (6/10) – The main thing is that Alonso walked out of Albert Park in one piece after a terrifying collision with Gutierrez that sent him rolling through the gravel and cost him a possible points finished.

22) Jenson Button (6/10) – A 14th place finish was poor reward for Button who was close to Alonso’s pace all weekend before a wrong call by McLaren to fit his car with super-soft tyres after the red flag dropped him out of contention.

93) Pascal Wehrlein (7/10) – DTM champion Wehrlein proved why he was given his F1 bow by Manor with a highly impressive first stint that saw him running in the midfield and keeping pace with stronger packages.

88) Rio Haryanto (6/10) – A decent debut for the Indonesian rookie who outqualified Wehrlein on Saturday before mechanical problems during the red flag brought his first Grand Prix to a premature end.

8) Romain Grosjean (8/10) – Driver of the Day. Grosjean produced a masterful display to run non-stop from the red flag and keep a train of cars at bay to finish a remarkable sixth on Haas’ debut.

21) Esteban Gutierrez (5/10) – Gutierrez’s return to the Formula One grid with Haas will be remembered more for his role in Alonso’s horrifying crash than for his performance, which saw him languishing behind Grosjean all weekend.

Stephen D’Albiac