Red Bull Racing know how to drop a bombshell. News that Sebastian Vettel was set to leave the team at the end of 2014 and be replaced by youngster Daniil Kvyat, certainly came as a surprise. The announcement that 18 year-old wonder-kid Max Verstappen is to replace Kvyat in the Red Bull senior outfit with immediate effect broke on Thursday morning, delivering an even greater level of surprise.
With Kvyat moving back to Toro Rosso – the junior squad in the unique Red Bull structure – some have deemed this as a demotion for the Russian. However, the story is as much about the excellence and market value of Red Bull’s teenage superstar.
Dr Helmut Marko is not known for his subtle approach. His disappointment with Kvyat’s performance in Russia – which saw him collide twice with Vettel and collect his teammate Daniel Ricciardo as collateral damage – was evident. Marko described the incident as a “disaster” post-race.
Kvyat’s catalogue of errors on lap one frustratingly followed what seemed to be a breakthrough weekend for the 22 year-old. The Chinese Grand Prix saw him make only his second trip to an F1 podium. It was his bold and aggressive race start, in which he dived down the inside of Vettel, (much to the distaste of the German), that saw him claim plaudits.
A heated debate between Vettel and Kvyat followed. When the latter pleaded his case by highlighting that he did not crash, Vettel responded “You didn’t; you were lucky this time.” As it turns out, the four time champion had concocted quite the metaphor.
Kvyat’s 15 point haul in China has been a solitary highlight of the season so far. Difficult qualifying sessions in both Australia and Bahrain set him off on the back foot, while teammate Ricciardo has been in scintillating form. Three fourth place finishes in the opening three races served to effectively quell the momentum Kvyat had gained by beating him in the final 2015 Drivers’ standings.
“It has emerged more and more that Daniil was no match to the pressure from Daniel Ricciardo and was constantly overdriving the car,” Marko told Autobild. “We wanted to take him out of the firing line and help his career instead of harming it.”
Essentially, Red Bull have cited Kvyat’s early season struggles to match Ricciardo as the reasons behind their decision.
However, Max Verstappen’s star quality is surely also a key factor. The Dutchman has been spectacular since making his debut last season, receiving acclaim for his race-craft and maturity in front of the media. As such, he has rapidly become F1’s hottest property, with parallels already being drawn to Senna and Schumacher.
Unsurprising then, that Red Bull would want to safeguard their prize asset and look to fend off the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, who may look to poach their future champion. Fast-tracking his rise to the senior team will serve to keep Verstappen content, offering him the opportunity to challenge for podiums long before such a chance could be afforded by Red Bull’s rivals.
“Max has proven to be an outstanding young talent,” Red Bull stated in their press release. “His performance at Toro Rosso has been impressive so far and we are pleased to give him the opportunity to drive for Red Bull Racing.”
While Kvyat’s career has taken a huge blow, Verstappen has earned an excellent opportunity to impress. It will be fascinating to see how he copes with the challenge of partnering Ricciardo, and conversely, how Ricciardo will respond if his opposite number begins to consistently beat him.
Kvyat and Verstappen swapping drives is unprecedented. Never before have Red Bull used their two teams to switch seats mid-season. It is highly doubtful whether they will ever make such a bold decision again. This is about Vertsappen’s promotion rather than Kvyat’s demotion. The events in Russia gave Marko and Red Bull justification to fast-track Verstappen’s journey to Milton Keynes.
It is a brutal move, but as Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastian Buemi and Jamie Alguesuari will testify, it is a tough life being a Red Bull young driver.