After the shock of the Red Bull move last week to drop Daniil Kvyat to Toro Rosso and promote Max Verstappen, the pair were out in their new cars on Friday here in Barcelona getting down to work.
The more one discusses this with various parties involved and with interested observers from other teams, one realises that there is far more to it than simply anticipating Verstappen’s promotion which was on the cards anyway for 2017.
Here is my take on what this is all about.
Verstappen’s contractual situation
When Max Verstappen came into F1, he had two choices – sign with Mercedes as a test driver in 2015 and wait for a race seat or race in 2015 for Toro Rosso. The deal stipulated that Verstappen would have two seasons with Toro Rosso and then be promoted to Red Bull, which would trigger the option for 2017 & 18. If Red Bull did not make that promotion, he would be a free agent at the end of 2016.
This is why we reported in March that the decision had already been made to move Verstappen to Red Bull in 2017 as this would trigger the option and keep him out of Mercedes and Ferrari’s hands.
Mercedes’ interest has cooled a little, especially after the strategy row during the Australian Grand Prix, but Ferrari remained keen.
There were suggestions that Verstappen may be moved across in the later stages of 2016.
Kvyat knew this and he looked nervous and unsettled in and out of the car in the early stages of the year. It may well have contributed to what happend at the start in Russia, nothwithstanding the fact that he had scored an excellent podium just two weeks earlier in China, Red Bull’s only podium of this season to date.
When Kvyat crashed into Vettel twice on the opening lap in Russia, an opportunuty opened up to make a switch, but there was an additional motivation for making the switch, to do with relations within Toro Rosso.
Toro Rosso politics
Things have been quite lively inside Toro Rosso since last season, with two young drivers fighting for supremacy, being forced to accept team orders both ways, being reluctant in some cases to accept them and so on. But things escalated in Australia when Verstappen’s strategy went haywire, he made an unsceduled stop and the team lost a strong result. An enquiry after the race by Red Bull director Helmut Marko found some conflicting stories about what had happened.
In Russia there was a dispute between Verstappen’s engineering team and the team management over tactics, tyres and qualifying approach, an example of a situation which the Verstappens were finding increasingly difficult to deal with. They told Marko they would like to move Max to Red Bull sooner rather than later.
Russia provided an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone and Verstappens’ engineering team was released in the clear out.
Meanwhile Kvyat was rumoured not to be entirely comfortable in the Red Bull team, to the extent that he had been at Toro Rosso, so when he spoke yesterday about the warm welcome in Faenza and the good feeling he has with the team, he was hinting at that.
The outlook for Kvyat
Kvyat conducted himself with great dignity in the FIA press conference on Thursday. He had wanted to be in there, did not shirk the challenge and came in with a plan. He did not let emotions get the better of him, which is always a risk with him and came out of it all looking dignified and a bigger man. We learned something about Kvyat yesterday and most people liked what they saw.
One of the subtle truths in our sport is that F1 people like a person who suffers a major setback or a fall but who takes the blow, gets back on their feet and moves on. That is Kvyat now.
The comparison with Romain Grosjean is quite valid here; although Kvyat’s fall is far greater than Grosjean’s, which was mainly just a lot of heavy criticism and a one race ban for causing accidents, the pair are similar in that they have great speed and car control, but struggle to channel it and conquer their emotions. Grosjean went away and worked on his psychological approach, his peripheral vision and countless other areas and came back a stronger driver.
The man dubbed a ‘first lap nutcase’ by Mark Webber, scored some wonderful podiums at the end of 2013, shared his joy at becoming a father and won many admirers. He has carried that through with his bold move to the Haas team and his fairytale start with Haas this year.
Kvyat said yesterday that he feels stronger and there are certainly possibilities for 2017 for a driver with three years’ experience who has been through the mill. The key is for him to be consistent the rest of this season.
He will be expected to beat Sainz, as he has more experience. It puts pressure on Sainz on one level in that he no longer has another rookie as a benchmark. But in another sense the atmosphere in the team will now calm down and he should be able to perform at his best level with minimal politics.
The outlook for Verstappen
Max Verstappen sat next to Kvyat in yesterday’s conference looking tanned, relaxed and very confident. He reminded me of a young Michael Schumacher, in his Benetton days, who used to appear the same way and look like he’d beaten everyone before the race had even started.
Verstappen appears to be another in that mould and the pathway is there for him to be the next Schumacher, Hamilton, Vettel in our sport.
“I’m very happy with the chance they have given me,” said Verstappen. “I’m racing for a top team now, so that was always the plan; what I wanted to do. And yeah, with the risk, to be honest I think it was a bigger risk to be so young in Formula One but I’ve handled it pretty well.”
The challenge of adapting to a new car, during a season, is not to be underestimated. It has a different power unit in the Renault, compared to the 2015 Ferrari and the car has much more downforce. He has little experience to draw on. He will be up against one of the fastest drivers in the business, who is also one of the best at looking after the rear tyres in a race. That will be the main area where Verstappen will struggle in comparison and only experience will bring success in that specific area, which is critical to doing well in Pirelli era F1. Ricciardo is also very consistent.
He will provide an excellent benchmark for Verstappen and if the Dutchman is the real deal, we should start to see that over the next 18 months in comparison to Ricciardo.
What looks a ruthless move, sorts out several problems that had been festering at Red Bull for some time and the rest of the season should be calmer for both teams. Marko has taken the sting out and now he and we can fully evaluate the four exciting drivers that Red Bull has in F1. How many of them are still with Red Bull in 2017 will be a another story.
If they do move on I would suspect that Sainz may interest Williams and Kvyat could be of interest to Force India, should there be any movement there.