The demise of Kvyat and the rise of Verstappen


Exactly a year ago, the fate of two Red Bull Formula 1 drivers took a dramatic turn in opposite directions.

Daniil Kvyat, having spent all of 2015 and the first four races of 2016 in the senior team, was demoted back to Toro Rosso to make way for 18-year-old Max Verstappen. It was shocking, it was ruthless, and yet, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Sure, that’s easy to say now, with Verstappen having continued right where he left off at Toro Rosso as the most exciting driver on the grid, but it’s not like Red Bull had to wait long for vindication.

His win on debut will go down as one of the seminal moments in F1 history, and his performances since have only furthered the notion that his is a talent more undeniable than a James May pickup line. Yet for as much as Verstappen deserved the seat, it’s arguable Kvyat did more to lose it.

Despite outscoring Daniel Ricciardo 95-92 in 2015, Kvyat never really made that significant of an impression in his Red Bull stint, and when he did grab headlines, it was usually for the wrong reasons.

Kvyat benefitted from a more reliable car in the back-half of 2015 to outscore Ricciardo, but where a direct comparison with the Australian was possible, resoundingly outqualified, and 0.261s per lap slower. And while that pace gap in and of itself wasn’t damning – Ricciardo did beat Vettel the year prior, after all – it put him on a short rope for 2016, one he used up almost immediately.

Kvyat was incident prone which did not help his cause

Two dismal qualifying performances in Australia and Bahrain, and two incidents with former-stablemate Sebastian Vettel in China and Russia transformed perceptions of Kvyat from “young gun” to an unreliable hothead.

It didn’t matter that he beat Ricciardo to the podium in Shanghai, he was “the torpedo”, an unnecessary sideshow who had lost the confidence of Red Bull “Godfather” Helmut Marko. Verstappen – both Max and father/manager Jos – had been agitating for a promotion, and Kvyat’s performances gave the team no real reason to say no.

Since his demotion, Kvyat’s predicament has grown even more precarious, as his performances relative to Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz (8-15 and 5-12 in race and qualy head-to-heads) have shifted him even further down the pecking order.

With 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting in the wings, Kvyat’s chances of regaining his seat are about the same as Scott Speed’s, meaning if he is to continue in F1, it’s to be elsewhere. Yet, if a driver of Jean-Eric Vergne’s calibre can’t get any nibbles, can any more realistically be expected of Kvyat?

One could argue Daniile was setup to fail at Red Bull

That said, it’s hard not to feel for Kvyat. The demotion clearly shook him, appearing in the weeks and months after miserable even by Russian standards. What’s more, considering the inevitability that surrounded Verstappen’s ascension, you could argue Kvyat was set up to fail.

Vettel’s abrupt exit in 2014 left a vacancy Red Bull had no one ready to fill, with Vergne already on the ouster and Verstappen yet to take part in a race. It’s hard to see a scenario where the team drops Ricciardo for Verstappen, given his past performances, meaning Kvyat would’ve needed to impress to such an extent they’d have no option but to let Verstappen be poached by one of his many other suitors.

Falling short of an impossible standard, he’ll go down as the poster boy for a ruthlessly efficient driver-making machine – not the first Red Bull chewed-up and spat out, and certainly not the last.