AUSTIN, Texas — When Sebastian Vettel surprised everyone before the Japanese Grand Prix with the news that he was leaving Red Bull at the end of the year, the team wasted no time in confirming his replacement.
And just as they did last year, when Mark Webber retired, the team did not look for a big name or proven race winner to fill the empty seat. Instead, they promoted Daniil Kvyat from Toro Rosso, the latest in a string of successful graduates from the Red Bull Junior Team.
The Junior Team's architect is Dr. Helmut Marko, a former Formula One driver and winner of the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 71-year-old Austrian started the program in 1999, when Red Bull was still just an F1 sponsor, not a constructor. Over the years, it has been refined and its model has proven successful.
"It was pretty much: If you win the championship, or show signs of being able to win, we'll just keep bumping you up," said Daniel Ricciardo, who graduated from the Junior Team to F1 in 2011 and took his first grand prix victory earlier this season. "It was perfect; it was all the motivation I needed. It's great. It gives you not only the opportunity, but the experience working with different teams and at different levels. They put me with HRT for six months, which was an experience, but it's definitely served me well now."
Red Bull do not actually run teams in the lower formulas but rather provide funding for their drivers to get seats with existing teams. This allows for greater flexibility in terms of placing drivers at the correct level, rather than shoehorning them into whatever race seat happens to be open.
That funding can make all the difference for young drivers who may have the talent to advance but cannot afford it. Kvyat said, "In karting, my parents could support me, but at some point, in the formulas, it would have been impossible for me to continue my career without Red Bull."
And the support extends beyond just paying for a race seat. "They give you a trainer, they give you programs to follow and the ability to race for one of the best teams in every series that you go to, so the drivers can just focus on results," Kvyat explained.
With that support, though, comes a lot of pressure.
"If people were not performing in the junior categories, or if they have a weakness that they couldn't get rid of after a couple of races, we basically stopped supporting them," Marko told me. "They know if they are not performing, there is no further support."
For a 15-year-old—as Kvyat was when he signed with the Junior Team—that can be a lot to handle. But it also ensures that only the very best drivers make it through—those with not only the driving skill but also the mental strength to succeed in F1.
And that is the trick. According to Marko, "To bring a driver to F1 is not that difficult, but to get a competitive driver is a bit different."
Few would argue with Red Bull's and Marko's success on that front. Vettel has won the last four world championships, Ricciardo has won three races and out-performed Vettel this year and Kvyat has turned in a string of impressive results after a big jump from Formula Three to F1 for 2014.
"We got a lot of s--t when we took Sebastian into Red Bull Racing, but he was strong, and then the same happened with Ricciardo, the same happened with Kvyat," Marko said.
"There's always a risk, yes, but you can see how Kvyat is doing now—unfortunately he's out-qualifying us—that was not in the plan," he continued, laughing. "Through the years, you know how our drivers have performed. We were right with Sebastian, we were right with Ricciardo and I hope we will be right with Kvyat."
Several other talented drivers have also made it to F1 with the Junior Team's help, including Vitantonio Liuzzi, Christian Klien, Sebastien Buemi and Jean-Eric Vergne, whose future at Toro Rosso is uncertain after this season. Their F1 careers did not necessarily pan out the way they hoped—and there are many other drivers from the program who never even made it to F1—but that is the price of the success for Red Bull.
As Marko says, "It's part of the job...99 percent of these drivers are now in other categories. These people can do what they love, motor racing, and be paid, and that was only possible because we gave them the opportunity to learn and have experience in lower categories."
Both Ricciardo and Kvyat agree that Marko is the lynchpin of the program and the biggest reason it has worked.
"He was there at the very first test I had with Red Bull when they were scouting and selecting the drivers and he was, I guess, the one that selected me," Ricciardo said. "He's basically the talent scout for Red Bull and what's good about him is he raced in F1...there's a lot on the lap time which tells, but he can actually visually see and understand a bit where the time comes from."
Kvyat told me that he has a very open relationship with Marko and that he appreciates the Austrian's candour. "Dr. Marko is a very experienced man and he knows what a driver needs to become successful. He also tells you clearly what you need to improve and if you are not able to improve, they have to say goodbye to you."
When evaluating talent, Marko says he takes compares both on-track and simulator performance. While some people don't trust simulators to give an accurate picture of a driver's relative pace, Marko thinks the mixture of the two actually provides a better picture.
And when all else fails, there is the old-fashioned eyeball test. That is where Marko's experience as a racer comes into play. "For me," he said, "after the first lap you can know if you have something special."
That decisiveness—and the ability to offer an F1 race seat right away—allowed Red Bull to sign Marko's latest protege, Max Verstappen, from under Mercedes' nose in August. He will take Kvyat's place at Toro Rosso in 2015.
Red Bull will be undergoing significant changes next year, losing not only Vettel but also their chief designer, Adrian Newey.
Without Newey, the car may not be as competitive, but thanks to Marko and the Junior Team, even without Vettel, driver talent will not be in short supply.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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