Red Bull – ruthless but right

Daniil Kvyat is an intriguing fellow. Clearly intelligent and thoughtful. One driver rare among his peers in that he relies rarely on cliché or vacuity. One also possessed of a wonderful way of expressing himself.

We know about the notorious Red Bull young driver programme too that he is part of, and its sheer pitilessness. That it operates like a tap with only two settings – a vast jet stream propelling your career upwards, but that shuts off completely at a moment’s notice if it is felt by its kingpin Dr Helmut Marko that you’re not making the extremely exacting grade.

With these two things in mind at the Hockenheim round in 2014 I asked Kvyat about it all, as to how he felt to be in an environment where you simply always must perform to a towering standard, that there always is the next guy on the conveyor belt waiting and ready to take your drive away. His response? “I don’t care who my team mate is…”. Ah, the assurance of youth, I thought.

In fairness to Kvyat there were rumours in the air that weekend that his team mate Jean-Eric Vergne wasn’t long for the Toro Rosso world, which perhaps is what he had in mind in his answer. The rumours indeed were confirmed in the subsequent summer break that the Frenchman was to be out at the year’s end, and replaced in a surprise with then 16 year old Max Verstappen. Even though Vergne was driving well, and sitting ahead of Kvyat on points. Even though he had been closely-matched with the rising star Daniel Ricciardo when they were stable mates, and that 2014 campaign he’d much improved his qualifying which had been previously the major area of difference between the pair. As far as the Bulls were concerned he’d had his chance and not come up to snuff.

In 2014 I asked Kvyat about how he felt to be in an environment where you simply always must perform to a towering standard, that there always is the next guy on the conveyor belt waiting and ready to take your drive away. His response? “I don’t care who my team mate is…”

At the time too Kvyat was the sport’s coming man. Now scarcely more than 18 months on suddenly he is in the role of Vergne, and replaced in the Red Bull A squad by the next coming man along in that self-same Verstappen. Kvyat’s not out entirely – not yet anyway as he gets a gig back at the Toro Rosso B team for now in Verstappen’s stead – but it’s near-impossible to see a way back. Rather he’s entering stay of execution. As Tony Jardine lamented upon hearing the news: “Marko is such a dictatorial inflexible soul, there isn’t any chance for redemption”. Indeed the smart money already is on Pierre Gasly driving for Toro Rosso in 2017.

One thing we can be sure of though is that it’s not actually about what went on in the first few turns in Sochi last time out; not even with Marko’s explanation that the move is to “take him out of the firing line” or Red Bull team principal Christian Horner’s suggestion that it is intended to give Kvyat a “chance to regain his form and show his potential”. And that’s just as well, for the sake of the sanity of all involved. Particularly given that, for all of the sound and fury in response – I mean race bans, really? – while the fault in the two collisions early in the Russian race definitely was Kvyat’s and their consequences were unfortunate particularly for Sebastian Vettel, his errors were not egregious. He can point to a few mitigating circumstances as some such as Will Buxton and Martin Brundle have done on his behalf.

“He was a bit unlucky” said Brundle after the race, “because [in the first contact] he didn’t steam in like a billiard ball knocking them all out the way with his brakes locked, it was very late in the braking phase, right at the last moment when he was probably unsighted, little bit of air coming off the front wing because you’re in traffic, and then, the next thing is, he just snatches that front wheel…

“On the second one he was very unlucky in that Seb had to [think] ‘where’s my car, what have I got’, Kvyat’s flustered, and he’s been caught out by expecting the car [ahead] to keep accelerating through [turn] three and [it] hasn’t.

“It looks horrendous and it was clumsy and was 100% his fault, but I think he’s a little bit unlucky the way it all played out”.

The accompanying suggestions too that Kvyat is a serial crasher, comparisons with Pastor Maldonado and all, also were seriously misplaced. I had a think back from prior to Sochi to find the last previous collision Kvyat had with an opponent that was unequivocally his fault. The best I could do was a collision with Sergio Perez. In that Hockenheim round mentioned. Back in 2014.

The switch is not about that as I said. In F1 by assuming that things aren’t actually about what they are ostensibly about you won’t go too far wrong. Think of its goings-on like the magician that creates a cloud of smoke and shouts abracadabra when performing a ‘trick’ – it’s not the smoke or the shout where the real action is taking place. This is but the latest case.

No, as Ted Kravitz for one outlined on Twitter, there is a conspicuous reek of there being much more to it. “Helmut Marko’s been looking for chance to get Max Verstappen in the senior team” he said. “Kvyat [in Russia] gave him two.” In other words it seems all at Red Bull have been seeking to make a virtue out of something they were minded to do anyway. Presumably too that the Russian Grand Prix, and its various associated commercial opportunities for Red Bull, is now in the past counted against Kvyat’s retention too.

Helmut Marko’s been looking for chance to get Max Verstappen in the senior team. Kvyat gave him two – Ted Kravitz

We can have sympathy for Kvyat, as fate thrust him into a position of between a rock and a hard place. On the other side of the garage you have that same Ricciardo, considered by many among the very best of the best. Winning plenty of friends from the direction of the junior team you have Max Verstappen, the most astonishing, gifted and exciting young pilot most of us can remember. Really you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of contemporary F1 drivers who would have prevailed in that three-into-two situation.

And to be blunt Kvyat never got with Ricciardo in their time as team mates. Not consistently anyway. Yes we can point at that he outscored the Australian last season, but by consensus that outcome flattered him and was related to the cards of reliability and the like falling more to the Russian. Many thought the qualifying match-up of 12-7 to Ricciardo was the fairer reflection while as Mark Hughes outlined perhaps even that was flattering to Kvyat, as taking only the Saturdays that had a straight comparison of technical equipment and reliability the score suddenly was a trouncing 8-2 to the perma-smiling Danny Ric.

Even as this season started it was difficult to see how Kvyat could prevail at the Red Bull big team beyond this campaign, short of consistently beating Ricciardo which was difficult enough and especially so for one such as Kvyat who apparently has an aggressive yet peculiar driving style that requires all to click underneath him in order to get the best from it.

This year indeed there was little to suggest Kvyat was getting with his stable mate. Never did he qualify ahead of the two Red Bulls in the four rounds, and in fact his final Saturday mark about three tenths off Ricciardo’s in Sochi has been the closest he’s got, while he started a mere 18th and 15th in the first two rounds. Even doubts could be unearthed in his high tide water mark of his run to third place in China, as some noted that Ricciardo despite his puncture delay and resultant drop to 18th place finished fewer than seven seconds behind him…

Then there was what was going on with Max, and not even just that he is very good and deserving of promotion when considered in its own terms. That he has been such a phenomenon has brought interest inevitably, not least from those further up the competitive order than Red Bull right now, and his contract expiry isn’t too far off – at the end of 2017. Promoting him ahead of time it is thought is all part of Red Bull’s attempts to keep him aboard; Kravitz added to his tweet indeed that the Verstappen switch “strengthens RB’s [Red Bull’s] hand in BIDDING WAR”. Just as when Max ended up the Toro Rosso race seat in the first place – with just 26 car races on his CV at the time – after he’d looked likely to throw his lot in with Mercedes, then as now offering tempting race seats immediately is an ace card for Red Bull to play.

As Kravitz explained the decision was sealed, and really delaying it until the year’s end only would have been marking time or pointless sentimentality – two things the Bulls definitely are not known for. Probably too given that technical rule changes await for 2017 Red Bull also wanted to maximise the continuity between the two seasons.

The decision was sealed, and really delaying it until the year’s end only would have been marking time or pointless sentimentality – two things the Bulls definitely are not known for.

And really that Red Bull acts this way should have been no surprise to Kvyat. His name is but the latest to be dropped; the latest to find that merely good is not quite good enough. See also in addition to the mentioned Vergne, Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and a number of others besides. Add to the list those on the programme who didn’t even reach F1 and its length multiplies. Vergne’s predicament as noted played out under his nose indeed. While Kvyat’s own promotion into an F1 drive with Toro Rosso was itself a surprise, leapfrogging at least one other in the presumed pecking order in Antonio Felix da Costa, who had himself been viewed as Red Bull’s, and motorsport’s, next big thing.

He’s not even the first to be shifted mid-season. Early in Red Bull’s debut season in 2005 indeed Christian Klien was benched to be replaced by Tonio Liuzzi, then brought back four rounds later. In 2006 Klien himself was cast onto the scrapheap before the year’s end, replaced by Robert Doornbos.  In 2007 at Toro Rosso none other than Sebastian Vettel got his break mid-year when Scott Speed was ditched. Come 2009 Alguersuari got his chance mid-season when Sebastien Bourdais was discarded.

As Marko himself explained in a similar case a few years back, while those dumped have certainly been “Grand Prix drivers…for us that’s not enough. We want Grand Prix winners.” Tough? Certainly. But it’s a tough game. And it’s also their prerogative. Particularly when the organisation stumps up so much to fund the driver programme. That old one about paying the piper and calling the tune. And Marko can point to two top drawer drivers in Vettel and Ricciardo as vindication of his approach. You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if Verstappen turns out to be another.

We shouldn’t feel especially sorry either. It remains to be seen what Kvyat’s future holds but at least he has the season’s remainder against a good yardstick in Carlos Sainz to make a case for himself, which is more than most of the others mentioned got. Good performances, combined perhaps with Russian finance, may tempt a few midfield employers. Buemi for one has shown it’s possible to establish a good subsequent motorsport career outside of F1 too.

Plus whatever else Red Bull did it gave Kvyat a fantastic, and rare, opportunity. Look through drivers that debuted in F1 in the past five years or so and two groups predominate. One is pay drivers, that is those that either bring money or sponsors directly or else are associated with commercial opportunities. And the other is those associated with the Red Bull programme. Those who made their F1 bow via other routes, while not unheard of, are by comparison hard to come by.

Alguersuari indeed after his own abrupt dropping at the end of 2011 – while he was later critical of the abruptness itself – rather summed this up: “I will not judge the decision because since 15 years old Red Bull gave me everything. Second, I am not a victim because for seven years I have enjoyed the privilege because of them.”

“It might be seen as a harsh decision” added the rather notorious Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost at the time, “but Formula 1 is a tough environment and Toro Rosso has always been very clear about the principles behind its driver choice.” He could just as easily be talking about Red Bull now.