Daniil Kvyat's F1 Debut: Do Toro Rosso Have a Future World Champion?

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15:  Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso prepares to drive during qualifying for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 15, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
Peter Fox/Getty Images

When he crossed the line to secure 10th place in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday (which later became ninth after Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification), 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat became the youngest driver to score a point in the history of Formula One.

It was quite an achievement—but with six of the 10 youngest drivers to score an F1 point still on the grid today, it is now perhaps more a general reflection of the sport’s growing willingness to hand youth a chance to shine than a genuine indicator of natural talent.

More interestingly, Kvyat became the fourth driver to be backed by Red Bull, the standard setters in terms of youth development, to appear in the top 10 in the seven years since Sebastian Vettel, then driving for BMW Sauber, scored points on his debut at Indianapolis.

With Vettel’s subsequent success, winning the 2008 Italian Grand Prix before dominating the sport for four successive years, the German is considered a rather daunting benchmark for every Red Bull young driver program graduate to be offered the chance to join Toro Rosso, effectively Red Bull Racing’s B team.

And although drivers such as the mediocre Sebastien Buemi and DJ Squire (Jaime Alguersuari to you and me)—the other Red Bull-backed drivers to feature on the top 10 youngest point-scorers list—have come and gone without making an impression, there is already reason to believe that Kvyat could emulate Vettel and become Red Bull’s next world champion.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15:  Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso drives during qualifying for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 15, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Who would have thought that last October when the little-known Kvyat was announced as Ricciardo’s successor, rather than Antonio Felix da Costa, the overwhelming favourite for a 2014 Toro Rosso seat, in what was initially viewed as a publicity stunt ahead of this year’s inaugural Russian Grand Prix?  

As the first driver to make an immediate jump to F1 from the GP3, the formula in which he became champion in his debut year in 2013 after Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas had previously succeeded in the series, it has quickly become clear why Toro Rosso were so willing to gamble on Kvyat’s career.

Apart from a mistake in the challenging conditions of the third and final qualifying segment, Kvyat drove as faultless a race weekend as you could hope from a man competing in his first grand prix.

But in particular the thrilling way he hassled, hounded and harried Kimi Raikkonen, a world champion, in the laps following the final round of pitstops of the afternoon confirmed why Toro Rosso should be commended for throwing Kvyat, who had only tested an F1 car for the first time at the Silverstone young driver test last July, into the deep end in what is only his fifth year of car racing.

In an interview with Sky Sports F1 ahead of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, 2009 world champion Jenson Button—who thanks to Kvyat has now dropped to fourth in the list of young drivers to score a point—explained how intimidating it can be for rookie drivers to share the same track as their more established counterparts, stating:

My first (highlight of my career) is driving out the pitlane in Australia behind Michael Schumacher and – for me as a 20-year-old boy – to be on the same circuit as Michael was a very special feeling (and) something that I’ll remember forever.

But for Kvyat, there was no time to waste being star-struck by the scarlet red of the Ferrari or the driver whom he watched snatch the title from under McLaren’s nose as a 13-year-old boy.

As far as the Russian was concerned, Raikkonen was an equal, just another car to pass.

Unlike other graduates from junior formulae in recent years, Kvyat did not suddenly decide to become the very last of the late breakers and risk a crash by launching his front wing down the inside of the Ferrari, but remained calm and in control.

His smooth manipulation of the steering, particularly in the challenging complex of Turns 11 and 12 and the final sector—where drivers can often bite off much more than they can chew—and comfort with oversteer on acceleration suggested that his eyes were not lit up behind his visor by the thought of potentially overtaking one of his boyhood heroes.

Rather than trying to pull off a spectacular but risky overtaking manoeuvre, Kvyat attempted to win the battle inside Raikkonen’s mind by positioning his car and threatening to pass on the inside of Turn 3—the best overtaking spot on the Albert Park circuit—but never actually committing to a move.

This led the distracted Ferrari driver, no doubt unnerved by the knowledge that a teenage debutant was hovering somewhere around his rear wing, locking up on one occasion and—not for the first time that weekend—fighting to keep his car on the track.

Even though Kvyat failed to pass Raikkonen, eventually finishing the race three seconds behind teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, that mini-battle—despite being anti-climatic—provided a revealing insight into the state of mind the Russian adopted for his first race weekend.

It was a similar state of mind, in fact, to the one that Vettel had when he came so close to crashing Lewis Hamilton’s party at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix by passing the champion-to-be with only a handful of laps to spare: not a carelessness as such, but an opportunism and a freedom that you only really see from young drivers destined to rise to the top.

Since Vettel graduated to the top, few Toro Rosso drivers have had the pleasure of driving with the kind of freedom that you would expect to be associated with a team reliant on youth, with the need to impress over a limited period of time having proved wearying for some.

And although the focus surrounded another Dan over the Australian Grand Prix weekend, you suspect it won’t be long before Daniil Kvyat becomes the star attraction.