The announcement from Scuderia Toro Rosso that 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat will replace the Red Bull-bound Daniel Ricciardo next season raised the predictable eyebrows and drew the expected criticisms.
Red Bull has long been driven by the appeal of the short-term facet of results, and this encapsulates a problem that is present through motorsport—especially the single-seater ladder.
When ability is determined by the results of a driver, circumstance is ignored. The journey to F1 and the time spent in junior formulae that goes with that is all about gaining experience and becoming better prepared.
Kvyat beat Formula Renault 3.5 race winner Antonio Felix da Costa to the seat, a driver who many though was a shoo-in to graduate to F1.
Da Costa had suffered a troubled 2013 but has proven himself to be a calm, intelligent and devilishly quick racing driver. He had everything in his locker apart from the one thing the sport’s culture of short-term development craves most—form.
Questions have been asked for a while about whether Red Bull would choose to put a driver who had been beaten by two McLaren juniors (one, Stoffel Vandoorne, a rookie) to the title he had almost been expected to walk away with.
But Da Costa’s suffered a variety of technical problems this year, and even the best driver in history cannot win a championship if the car breaks down mechanically while his rivals continue to pick up points.
Is Age Just a Number?
It was understandable that Red Bull’s bypassing of da Costa was met with disapproval. In terms of overall development, he is the best prepared junior driver.
But does that mean we should write Kvyat off? Of course not. He has raced a dual programme this year in both GP3 and European F3, is a race winner in both, an impressive achievement in itself, and is challenging for the title in the former. At 19, he is looking very promising.
Does that promise make him ready for F1? No, not at all. Valtteri Bottas—the 2011 GP3 champion—spent a season as reserve driver for Williams, pounding in the mileage on various Friday morning outings, before he was ready to step up. And it would not be out of place to say the Finn was (and remains) a prospect held in higher regard than Kvyat.
Will he sink or swim? At this point, it is impossible to say for certain. But there is a big learning curve ahead of him. A lot of more experienced, more successful drivers have moved into F1 and been burned.
That’s not to play down Kvyat’s potential at all. He could be the real deal, the driver from Russia Sauber is hoping Sergey Sirotkin could be but with a better track record. But these things need to be managed properly.
To put it into perspective, Kvyat is less experienced, has less overall success and has competed at a lower level than any of Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi or Jean-Eric Vergne when they were brought into Formula One by backers Red Bull. So the question is both rhetorical and literal: Has it not learned anything?
You would suggest so, given that Vergne’s been handed a stay of execution with Toro Rosso and will be Kvyat’s teammate next year—the Frenchman’s third with the Red Bull junior outfit. Red Bull is convinced the knowledge gained from working with its multitude of drivers that have now been brought up the single-seater ladder means it has made the correct choice.
Unfortunately for Kvyat, he will be unable to vindicate that until next season. Until then, he’ll have to put up with the cries of financial foul play, of he being a poorer driver than da Costa, of Toro Rosso and Red Bull making yet more stupid decisions with their drivers.
But he can vindicate it. He is a good driver, and while the jump from F3 to F1 is not as common as it used to be that does not mean he’ll be entirely out of his depth. He acquitted himself well at the Young Driver Test at Silverstone, impressing the team with his ability behind the wheel and—more crucially—his technical feedback. So don’t count against the Russian proving age is but a number.
What Now For Da Costa?
Where does this leave da Costa? Hopefully not on the Red Bull scrapheap, for the Portuguese is a very, very good young racing driver.
Red Bull showed an added patience when they gave Vergne an extra season in F1. With Kvyat out of GP3 and European F3, does that give da Costa a similar second chance?
His time in Formula Renault 3.5 is done. Another season could be the end of him as a driver because he has nothing left to prove there, but so much to lose if he gets beaten. The best option would be GP2. If he can adapt to another car, fight for wins and challenge for the title (though not necessarily win it) then he would likely be the man to step in and replace Vergne at Toro Rosso in 2015.
It’s not ideal, and it’s not what the Portuguese would have hoped for. After all, he said himself this is life. This is F1. This is how it goes sometimes.
Ending on Kvyat, he has both the greatest of opportunities and the hardest of challenges ahead of him. Red Bull has seen enough. The guys that call the shots believe he has proven himself to be worthy of the chance to show what he can do.
He's quick, intelligent and has proven very versatile in what he can drive—and drive fast. Is that enough to be in F1? Or is it that his age is counting against him?
That will be down to Red Bull to answer. All Kvyat can do now is soak in as much information as possible. For F1's sake, and the teenager's, Red Bull must be patient. There is no doubting Toro Rosso is a great place for him to go, and the setup there will be as good as he could hope for because they know how to deal with young drivers.
Kvyat's been working towards F1 since he started racing, that has always been the ultimate goal. He should be credited for his efforts so far—and judged on what he produces in the future.