A broken man? The case of Daniil Kvyat

Daniil Kvyat is having a tough time of things lately, with his performances on the racing circuit (as well as his demeanour off it) leading to suggestions that being demoted from Red Bull to the Toro Rosso junior team earlier this year has left him a broken young man.

Kvyat is certainly struggling since his return to the junior team, scoring only two points in eight races and being out-performed in all aspects by team-mate Carlos Sainz. With rumours that the 22-year old Russian could be reaching the end of his time in Formula 1, it is worth taking a look at the situation he finds himself in, and how precisely he went from driving for a front-running team to fighting for his future in the sport…

Did Kvyat deserve to be demoted by Red Bull?

At first glance, Red Bull’s thinking behind demoting Kvyat is entirely understandable. With teenage protégé Max Verstappen exceeding all expectations at Toro Rosso and itching to move up the grid, the Austrian outfit was effectively forced to lock him into a long-term contract or risk losing him. It had become clear that Verstappen (who had been promised a promotion or the freedom to join another team in 2017) was the logical candidate to replace the under-pressure Russian at the senior team. In effect, Red Bull had already made their decision about their team’s 2017 driver pairing and simply chose to advance their schedule.

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A better question might be whether Kvyat ever deserved to be promoted in the first place. The Russian made his F1 debut for Toro Rosso in 2014, partnering Jean-Eric Vergne. He showed promise but it was far from obvious that he would one day pilot a Red Bull. The Austrian team tend to give new Toro Rosso recruits two full seasons at the junior team before making a decision on their suitability for a spot at the senior team. However, with the sudden departure of Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari for 2015, Red Bull found itself a driver short at the senior team and with Kvyat next in line, the Russian was promptly promoted to partner Daniel Ricciardo for 2015.

While he had certainly made progress over the course of his debut season, he was far from the finished product. In particular, he had not yet fully mastered the art of managing his rear tyres. However, Red Bull are not known for their patience, and so Kvyat found himself partnering the much-fancied Ricciardo. It seemed initially as though his promotion had been a mistake as he was frequently out-paced by the more experienced Australian. As the 2015 season progressed, however, he began to close the pace gap and by the end of the season was roughly holding his own against Ricciardo, eventually out-scoring him 95–92.

Unfortunately for Kvyat, the start of 2016 saw all his momentum from the second half of 2015 desert him as Ricciardo out-qualified him by an average of almost seven places during each of the first four races of the new season. Matters came to a head at the Russian Grand Prix when Kvyat attempted a suicidal start that saw him make contact with Ricciardo and the Ferrari of Vettel. His demotion was soon announced, with Red Bull Advisor Helmut Marko stating that while Kvyat had the required inherent pace to succeed at Red Bull, he had been unable to cope with the consistently high level at which Ricciardo performed.

In short, Kvyat is not a poor racing driver. However, he was required to deal with too much pressure too soon, and he was unable to rise to the occasion on a consistent basis. Another year at Toro Rosso in 2015 would likely have left him better-prepared for a possible promotion to the senior team. As it was, the fact that he was not yet the finished article was painfully exposed on several occasions, and with the rapid rise of Verstappen’s star, the end was always coming sooner rather than later.

Do Red Bull need to take some responsibility for Kvyat’s current situation?

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Yes and no. Red Bull could have handled the Russian’s demotion better. Kvyat has claimed that he was completely caught by surprise at the decision, of which he was informed by means of a phone call from Helmut Marko. The 22-year old was already aware that he was under mounting pressure, and it would have been better for the Austrian team to have informed him that, for example, his performances leading up to the summer break would be critical for his future. Instead, Kvyat has gone from the high of piloting a front-running car to being sent back to the midfield.

Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner noted that it would have been easier for Verstappen to go from driving the Toro Rosso STR11 to the Red Bull RB12 than for Kvyat to do the opposite. This is because the RB12 possesses far greater levels of downforce than the STR11, which meant that Verstappen’s challenge was to explore the limits of his new challenger’s abilities. Kvyat, by contrast, was forced to go from the high-downforce RB12 to an inferior STR 11 that he was unaccustomed to.

This in itself was a big blow for the Russian, and the fact that new team-mate Carlos Sainz has clearly lifted his performance levels since Verstappen’s promotion has only made matter worse for him. On the other hand, Kvyat has been at Toro Rosso for eight races now, and irrespective of how much his demotion shook him, he needs to adapt sooner rather than later. In the end, Formula 1 is a harsh and performance-driven environment, and excuses will be of little use when a final decision regarding his future with Toro Rosso is taken towards the end of the year. The rules of the game are always made painfully clear to Red Bull’s junior drivers from the start: success brings great opportunities, failure brings little sympathy.

What next for Kvyat?

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Recent reports in the Russian media have suggested that the 22-year old’s Toro Rosso contract will not be renewed for 2017. Given his performances against Sainz so far, this outcome would come as no surprise. Last time out, in Germany, Kvyat qualified down in 19th place, after which he was visibly dejected and bewildered.

Sunday brought better fortune, however, as he fought back to finish just behind Sainz despite starting much farther back on the grid. The Russian was confident that he had taken a step back in the right direction, but it is whether he can build on this positive result that is the key question.

It is not yet too late for him to save his F1 future, but he needs to demonstrate a clear step forwards in performance over the remaining nine races of the season. Sainz is currently well-regarded within in the paddock, and for Kvyat to match him over the remainder of 2016 would do his future prospects in F1 no harm. Finding a spot at another team for 2017 would be difficult at present, with the likes of Williams, Force India and Renault currently lacking any incentive to offer the Russian a drive over the likes of Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, and Sergio Perez, all of whom are realistically available for next year.

Kvyat also has another problem that goes by the name of Pierre Gasly. The 20-year old Frenchman is the next Red Bull junior in the line for a Formula 1 promotion. Furthermore, he has impressed of late in the GP2 series and is firmly in contention to win the title. If this were to happen, Red Bull would have no real excuse to keep Kvyat in the fold at Gasly’s expense. In effect, Kvyat is under pressure from above, because the performances of Verstappen and Ricciardo at Red Bull make a re-promotion highly unlikely. He is also under pressure from below due to Gasly’s GP2 heroics.

Overall, matters look bleak for the Russian, who recently admitted that his F1 future could “die” unless he shows a dramatic and sudden improvement. What the future holds for Daniil Kvyat will depend largely on his results over the next three months. A lack of improvement will likely signal the end of the road for him at the tender age of 22. On a positive note for Kvyat, things can’t really get any worse than they are at the moment, so the only way forward is onwards and upwards.

Adriaan Slabbert

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