On paper, the battle between Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull this season looks lopsided.
Ricciardo is entering his fifth season of Formula One, and he scored three victories in 2014, thoroughly beating four-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel in the process.
Kvyat, meanwhile, has just one year of F1 race experience, and much of it was spent battling Lotus and Sauber at the back of the midfield. The Russian's best finish in his rookie year was ninth, in Australia, Great Britain and Belgium.
But let's look at this team-mate battle from a different angle. Which driver does the following describe? He had plenty of success in the junior formulas before gaining valuable F1 experience with Toro Rosso. He was then selected—somewhat surprisingly—to replace a multiple grand prix winner who was leaving Red Bull.
Well? That could be either Ricciardo or Kvyat—and that is the point.
Last season, Ricciardo—who had never finished higher than seventh in an F1 race—versus 39-time race winner Vettel seemed like a huge mismatch...and it was. Just not in the way we expected it. Ricciardo outscored Vettel 238 to 167 and beat the German champion in 11 of the 14 races they both finished.
Now, the racing boot is on the other foot, as it were.
In 2014, the bulk of the pressure and expectations were on Vettel, not Ricciardo. With Vettel now at Ferrari, Ricciardo takes on the leadership of a team with a massive budget and on-track expectations to match.
Could Kvyat be the Daniel Ricciardo of the 2015 season, shocking a more experienced team-mate?
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner thinks so. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, per Reuters' Alan Baldwin, he said of Kvyat:
Sure, he's a little bit rough around the edges. He's only done 19 grands prix so far, but his commitment, speed and application are excellent.
There will be the odd mistake here or there but that's natural with a young driver on the trajectory he's on. I really think he can be surprise of this year in the same way that Daniel was last year.
He has all the right attributes to do some really fantastic things this year.
That is high praise, coming from the man who has overseen Red Bull's rise from the midfield to multiple championships.
Kvyat is confident, too. In December, he told Autosport's Ben Anderson, "I will be at Red Bull not to watch him do well, but to do my best and be in front of him and everybody; that's how it's going to be.
"I wouldn't go there if I was scared."
Still, there are some differences between Ricciardo's and Kvyat's situations in their first years at Red Bull.
In 2014, Vettel struggled with the changes to the cars mandated by an overhaul of the sport's regulations. Horner revealed this week that Vettel was so frustrated that he even considered quitting F1, telling The Guardian's Paul Weaver:
He didn’t enjoy the new engine, the feel from the new system, the power unit, the brake by wire, the lack of downforce. You could tell he wasn’t happy. ... There was a stage last year when he thought whether he wanted to stop or not, whether he was getting the same level of enjoyment or not and whether or not he wanted to continue.
Meanwhile, Ricciardo was comfortable in the RB10 from the time the green flag waved at the first race in Melbourne. He finished second in his Red Bull debut (although he was later disqualified) and never looked back.
Kvyat was also strong right from the start of last season, becoming the youngest points-scorer in F1 history at the Australian Grand Prix. He broke Vettel's record by 25 days.
This year, though, Kvyat will not have the advantage of a team-mate struggling with his own car, as Ricciardo did. And despite the poise Kvyat showed in his rookie season, he has far less experience than Ricciardo did when he was promoted to Red Bull.
For now, Ricciardo looks like a firm favourite to continue his success from 2014 while Kvyat gets his feet wet at the front of the grid.
But Ricciardo is taking nothing for granted. In an FIA press conference at last year's U.S. Grand Prix, Ricciardo spoke about Kvyat, saying, "I definitely won’t take him lightly. I know he’s very quick and just because he’s still inexperienced in Formula One I’m sure he’s going to bring a lot to the team and a lot to the table. ... I feel I’m not at my peak yet, so I’ll try and get there personally first and then see where Dani fits in."
Fitting in should not be a problem. Kvyat has been part of the Red Bull family since he was 15, through the Red Bull Junior Team. The big question is how quickly he can get on the pace with his new team.
And, as Ricciardo knows, that might not take long.
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