One weekend you are on the podium – one race later you have been dropped by your team. That’s what has happened to Daniil Kvyat – the one time big hopeful for Red Bull, a potential future champion.
This has been greeted with some surprise at the swiftness of the move, most reports claiming that Dr Helmut Marko has a short fuse and is not shy to cut drivers adrift if they do not meet his expectations.
To try and understand why Kvyat has been let go so quickly in the year, let’s see if the history of Red Bull / Toro Rosso driver swaps shows us a pattern as to why they change drivers mid-season, but first let’s quickly look at the players…
• Owned by Dietrich Mateschitz.
• Sponsored Sauber from 1995 – 2004
• Bought the Jaguar Racing team in 2004 for the bargain price of $1, competing in their first season of racing in 2005, with team boss Christian Horner.
• Success grew until they were finally world champions from 2010 to 2013.
• The last couple of years have been a struggle, with notable frustrations with their Renault engine.
• 2005 – Red Bull purchase Minardi.
• 2006 – First season, rebranded as Scuderia Toro Rosso.
• Team boss Franz Tost.
That’s the potted history of Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso, but one name that hasn’t been seen yet is Helmut Marko – so who is he, and why is he regarded as the puppet master behind the Red Bull teams’ drivers?
• 1943 – born in Austria.
• Competed in 10 Formula 1 Grands Prix in 1971-72, scoring no points and a best finishing position of 8th.
• In 1972, during the German Grand Prix, a loose stone pierced his visor, blinding him in his left eye and ending his racing career.
• 1989 – setup & ran ‘RSM Marko’, competing in Formula 3 and Formula 3000 (now known as GP2).
• 1999 – RSM Marko rebranded Red Bull Junior Team, Helmut also becomes head of the Red Bull driver development programme.
• 2005 – becomes advisor to Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Junior Team
The Red Bull Junior Team isn’t a team as such – it is the banner that promising drivers are signed to, with Red Bull then sponsoring as well as coaching them through various motorsport series on their way to a potential Formula 1 seat. For example, Sebastian Vettel was part of the Red Bull Junior Team from the age of 11(!), competing in, amongst others, Formula BMW and Formula 3. He was part way through Formula Renault 3.5 in 2007, leading the championship when he was plucked out to replace Scott Speed at Toro Rosso.
Speaking of Scott Speed, he came from another Red Bull driver initiative, the Red Bull Driver Search. This was an American version of the Red Bull Junior Team, intent on finding an American F1 driver, ideally an F1 team. Scott Speed was the only notable winner of the search – although the intent of finding the next American F1 champion was not exactly fulfilled as his career only consisted of one and a half racing seasons at Toro Rosso in 2006-07, scoring precisely zero points. As mentioned above he was kicked out in favour of Sebastian Vettel, and although still sponsored by Red Bull, he stated that he would never work with the Toro Rosso management ever again.
So that’s the players – we have Dietrich Mateschitz in charge of the whole Red Bull company, funding a driver programme run by Helmut Marko searching for the next generation of drivers, and two Formula 1 teams (an ‘A’ and ‘B’) to put them in. The amount of drivers who have been through the programme total up to much more than the available number of seats in those teams, so this forces the Red Bull management’s hand somewhat – if Toro Rosso and Red Bull are ‘full’, a driver ready for Formula 1 promotion won’t just want to sit on the sidelines until a slot opens up, and of course Red Bull won’t be too keen on looking after a driver for years only to see them go to a rival team. This is perhaps the context for those ‘harsh’ decisions to cut drivers mid-season – let’s try and understand why…
2006 – Red Bull – Klien Out, Doornbos In
Red Bull’s first season in 2005 saw them swapping the second seat throughout the season between Antonio Liuzzi and Christian Klien as they tried to assess both drivers. Klein won out in that year, competing in the majority of races, and being a full time driver in 2006…that is until he was dropped 3 races from the end of the season and replaced by Robert Doornbos.
The decision to replace him wouldn’t really be as a result of unfavourable comparison to his teammate – as that teammate was the vastly more experienced David Coulthard. That being said, Klien generally finished in a better position than Coulthard when they finished races together, but overall David finished more races, had less accidents, had a higher average finishing position and scored more points. So the decision to give Doornbos (a Red Bull Driver Programme graduate) a seat for the final 3 races seems like a reasonable decision, nothing was being gained or lost.
Interestingly, the following two seasons saw David Coulthard being paired with Mark Webber – so neither Red Bull Racing driver had been part of the development programme.
2007 – Toro Rosso – Speed Out, Vettel In
As mentioned above, 2007 saw Scott Speed dropped after 10 races for someone you may have heard of, Sebastian Vettel. Up until that time, Speed’s team-mate was Antonio Liuzzi, so how had the pair been faring against each other?
Well, they both had the same number of points (none!) and they had had the same number of accidents (4). Scott Speed was actually looking better in a couple of areas – he had seen one more chequered flag than Liuzzi, and his average finishing position of 12th was higher than Liuzzi’s of 15th. Finally, in the only race out of 10 where they both made it to the end (Malaysia), Speed finished higher in the results than Liuzzi. So nothing in 2007’s results points to Speed being the obvious firing candidate, if anything Liuzzi should have been the one to go.
Let’s look back to the previous season to see if that helps shed some light. The pair were team-mates throughout the entire 2006 season, and their average finishing position was actually exactly the same, 12th. In the races where they both finished, this time Liuzzi comes out on top, beating Speed 6-4. Liuzzi had 2 more accidents than Speed, but perhaps one of the key pieces of information is that while Speed finished the season pointless, Liuzzi managed to at least get onto the scoreboard with one point.
So the previous season doesn’t really help either, as the two drivers were reasonably well matched. Perhaps the swap was an attempt to improve the constructors standings – after finishing 2006 in 9th position (out of 11) with a meagre 1 point, 2007 was so far pointless. In fact, even after the change that remained the situation for another 5 races. At the Chinese Grand Prix though, the decision to bring Vettel into the team was validated, as although Liuzzi scored points in this race, Vettel went two places even higher, finishing in fourth. This would eventually secure 7th place in the championship for the team.
So why swap Speed? At the end of the day, it doesn’t seem to be anything that Speed did wrong on the track (although there did seem to be quite a falling out with Toro Rosso management off-track), it seems to be more that the teams ambitions were higher, and with Vettel’s talent shining through it seems like the obvious choice.
2009 – Toro Rosso – Bourdais Out, Alguersuari In
In 2009, Toro Rosso started the season with new boy Sebastien Buemi alongside the previous season’s Sebastien Bourdais – who by this time had already been a 4 time Champ Car champion in America.
Bourdais’ Champ Car success didn’t earn him a free ride in Formula 1 – halfway through the 2009 season he was dropped in favour of Jaimie Alguersuari. At the point at which he was dropped, Bourdais had a better finishing average than Buemi (11th vs 13th), and they had had the same number of accidents. Buemi had beaten Bourdais 3-2 in the races they finished together, and he had also finished one more race and perhaps crucially scored more points – albeit only one more, 3-2.
At this time in the season (about half-way) perhaps Toro Rosso were looking at Renault’s Constructor points of 13 and hoping to improve on their own of 5 to try and overhaul the French team. As it turned out in the second half of the season, while they did add another 3 points, none of them came from Algeursuari, and to make matters worse they were also overtaken by Force India anyway and ended up finishing the season in last place.
It is perhaps a combination of the Toro Rosso sacking of Bourdais in 2009 and the promotion of Vettel in 2007 that explains the decision to demote Kvyat. Bourdais was sacked for failing to live up to expectations – as a 4 time Champ Car champion, a Formula 1 points haul of 6 was clearly perceived to be not good enough, even for Toro Rosso. The promotion of Vettel was to not only replace an averagely performing driver in Scott Speed, but more importantly to utilise the talent of the German.
Do these two examples apply to Kvyat?
Popular opinion seems to go with the ‘underperforming’ argument – pointing to the disastrous first lap in Russia primarily, but also the fact that Ricciardo came back to finish one place behind Kvyat in China even after the Australian suffered a total tyre failure. This however seems to be ignoring the previous season where Kvyat ended the year outperforming Ricciardo, with a slightly higher average finishing position, more points, the same amount of finishes, and he more often than not beat Ricciardo when they finished together, in fact the only blot was that Kvyat had an accident where Ricciardo had none.
Judging on a bad day in Sochi is perhaps also unfair – let’s not forget a certain Sebastian Vettel punting out Mark Webber under the safety car in Japan in 2007, colliding with Webber (again) in Turkey in 2010 or totally losing control and crashing into Jenson Button at the bus stop of Spa in the same year. Everyone is surely allowed at least one bad weekend per season?!
That leaves the ‘grass is greener’ argument for Verstappen. Much the same as Red Bull wanted to use Vettel, the impact of Verstappen into F1 is undeniable. A seat for him in Red Bull Racing in 2017 was inevitable, so given that he was already racing for Toro Rosso, was it really necessary to do the swap now? It wasn’t as if he was suddenly going to go to Ferrari in 2017 – he’s under Red Bull contract.
The harshness here is because Verstappen would have ended up at Red Bull anyway, and previous form shows Kvyat as being (almost) an equal to Ricciardo. By demoting Kvyat to Toro Rosso in this fashion, the young man once touted as a potential future champion (let’s not forget that although Verstappen is a teenager, Kvyat is still only 22) is now potentially finding himself in a Buemi/Alguersuari situation of struggling to generate interest and finding himself on the F1 scrapheap in his mid-20s.
Maybe the crime here isn’t sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso, it was promoting him to Red Bull too soon. Let’s just hope that the pattern of promoting young talent then quickly booting them out to pasture if they don’t immediately live up to expectations doesn’t repeat itself with Verstappen.
So to current members of the Red Bull Junior Team – congratulations on having your talent spotted! But just watch your back – while your hand is being held and sweet nothings are being whispered in your ears, those eyes are still wandering…