Red Bull Driver Swap: Did RBR do the right thing?

On Thursday morning, Red Bull Racing announced that Daniil Kvyat would be demoted to the Toro Rosso junior team, with Max Verstappen taking his place at the senior squad.

It was plain to see that there was great anger within Red Bull over Kvyat’s first-lap antics at the Russian Grand Prix last weekend, during which he hit Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel twice in quick succession, who in turn collided with Daniel Ricciardo, Kvyat’s teammate.

However, few within the F1 community seriously expected a team of Red Bull’s size to demote Kvyat so suddenly. Red Bull, however, made the decision swiftly and decisively, which it was able to do since all Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing drivers are centrally contracted to Red Bull and can thus be swapped around as the organisation sees fit. Unsurprisingly, such a reaction from Red Bull has led to a myriad of questions.

Why did Red Bull demote Kvyat?

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Contrary to the common consensus on Twitter and other social media, Red Bull did not demote Kvyat as a direct result of his Russian Grand Prix mistakes. To understand why they did so, however, requires some background on the young Russian’s F1 career thus far.

Daniil Kvyat made his F1 debut for Toro Rosso as a 19-year old at the Australian Grand Prix in 2014. He impressed on debut by finishing ninth, becoming Formula 1’s youngest ever points-scorer at the time. After a single season at Toro Rosso, Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull to replace the departing Sebastian Vettel, who chose to join Ferrari. The opinion within Toro Rosso at the time was that Kvyat, while talented, was not yet a finished product. However, his promotion was forced through by Vettel’s departure, and the young Russian found himself partnering the highly-rated Daniel Ricciardo for 2015.

The start of 2015 was a struggle for Kvyat, as he regularly found himself trailing Ricciardo on the time-sheets. A strong performance at the Monaco Grand Prix, however, kick-started his season and over the course of the year, he produced improved results. While he was yet to be considered Ricciardo’s equal, he did manage to outscore the Australian by season’s end and had clearly made progress as a racing driver. His podium finish in China notwithstanding, Kvyat has found the going tough so far in 2016. Ricciardo has once again led the way at the Austrian squad, and speculation about the Russian’s seat being under threat had started even before the Russian Grand Prix.

As for Verstappen, the young Dutchman reportedly has a clause in his contract that either guarantees his promotion to Red Bull for 2017 or the freedom to join another team. In short, he was never going to be staying at Toro Rosso, especially given the fact that Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams and McLaren all have seats opening up at the end of the season. Given Verstappen’s prodigious talent and impressive performances, it comes as no surprise that Red Bull are eager to hold on to him. In other words, the decision that Verstappen would race for Red Bull in 2017 had already been taken, and with Ricciardo under contract with the Austrian team until 2018, Kvyat was always going to be under pressure.

Clearly then, Kvyat’s demotion was not a result of a single mistake, but of sustained questions about his performance, along with Verstappen’s rising star. In short, Red Bull had already made its decision and was left asking itself “Why 2017? Why not now?”

What now for Kvyat?

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To begin with, the Russian will be driving for Toro Rosso until the end of 2016 with little hope of a re-promotion, unless Verstappen proceeds to fail dismally at the senior team. After that, he is likely to leave Toro Rosso, since the team exists to prepare Red Bull’s young stars for the big time, not as a long-term solution for any driver.

As mentioned above, there are a variety of seats towards the sharp end of the grid that may open up for 2017.

Mercedes and Ferrari are unlikely to be an option, as Kvyat is not an overly compelling prospect when compared to Nico Rosberg or Kimi Räikkönen, who are the two drivers that find themselves in the final year of their contract with their respective teams. McLaren may well choose to continue with Jenson Button, leaving Kvyat with Williams as his best option, perhaps as a replacement for Felipe Massa. While Williams is a less attractive proposition than Red Bull, there are far worse places he could end up.

To be clear, Kvyat is not a poor driver by any stretch of the imagination. He does, however, lack the raw quality of Verstappen or Ricciardo. Still, his intelligence and smooth driving style should enable him to achieve success in the future. His biggest problem, however, is that he now carries the label of “damaged goods”. No top team is likely to consider him seriously now that he has been shown the door by a rival of Red Bull’s stature. This is a problem akin to the one faced by Sergio Perez, who has been solidly anchored in F1’s midfield since his unsuccessful stint at McLaren as Button’s partner in 2013. Despite impressing at Force India in 2014 and 2015, the Mexican has yet to be seriously linked to a top team again. Kvyat may well face the same issue.

Was promoting Verstappen the right decision?

Max Verstappen

On the one hand, promoting an 18-year old with 23 Grands Prix to his name to a Red Bull seat may seem like a bad idea. On the other hand, Max Verstappen is no ordinary 18-year old. At the risk of further contributing to his already-sizeable reputation, it should be stressed that Verstappen is a rare talent.

He has an abundance of pace, his overtaking is exquisite and he generally keeps a cool head under pressure. His radio exchange with his team at the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year revealed a sense of entitlement and some petulance in his personality, for which he was criticised. However, it should be remembered that none of the great drivers of years gone by achieved their success by being yes-men or lapdogs. Each of them possessed the selfish streak and ruthless edge that eventually saw them reach the top. The likes of Schumacher, Senna and Vettel are only a few examples of this. Furthermore, even if Verstappen may be a little short on maturity at this point in time, he is only likely to develop further from here.

The only concern for Verstappen is that of whether his promotion is “too much, too soon”. The young Dutchman has time on his side and could have been well-served by staying at Toro Rosso until the end of 2016 in order to avoid being rushed into a similar situation as Kvyat was in 2015. Still, a driver of his confidence was never going to shy away from the added pressure of piloting a Red Bull, even in the middle of the season.

When Verstappen made his debut in 2015 as a 17-year old, the scrutiny he faced as Formula 1’s youngest-ever driver was substantial. Now, he will come under scrutiny yet again. His performance at Red Bull will be closely analysed, especially relative to Ricciardo, who has established himself as one of the brightest young talents of his generation. Should Verstappen compare favourably to the Australian, a long-term future with Red Bull is all but assured. If not, he may find himself in a similar position to Kvyat. Given his impressive abilities, however, the latter outcome seems less likely to occur than the former.

As in all things, the best way to find out is to wait and see. Max Verstappen certainly belongs in a Red Bull. Whether he belongs in a Red Bull in 2016 is yet to be determined. Destiny beckons for the Dutch youngster. How he responds will be interesting to see.

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