Eric Silbermann looks at the history of Red Bull's rapid driver promotions and the reasons behind the seat swap between Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen
Should we feel sorry for Daniil Kvyat following his demotion back to Scuderia Toro Rosso? No, not really, because he’s had a fantastic fast-track career, bank-rolled by Red Bull and, when all’s said and done, he will still be driving a competitive Formula 1 car next weekend in Barcelona.
In fact, compared to other drivers who have been shown the Promised Land in the shape of a seat in a Toro Rosso, the Russian lad is the first graduate of the Red Bull Junior Driver programme to make it all the way to the top, by moving on to a seat with the Milton Keynes squad and not get thrown on the scrap heap when he’s been deemed to have failed.
When Red Bull Racing entered the sport in 2005, it was seen as the “fun” team, famous for parties rather than performance, but underneath the manufactured image of a lip-curled youngster mixing it up in a world still set in the Seventies, was a ruthless desire to succeed. Red Bull made a name for itself, signing up all the best athletes in what we can group together under the heading Extreme Sports. If it involved wearing baggy trousers, a baseball cap on backwards, or at least sideways and if it blurred the lines between sport and youthful rebellion, then Red Bull bought it up, stickered it up and flogged it to death, along with cans of its fizzy drink.
But Formula 1 is a far more professional and serious world, involving far more serious money and Red Bull knew it would have to win, not just take part if it was to see a return on its investment. When it came to drivers, there was an embarrassment of riches: in 2005 Red Bull Racing went for a banker in the shape of David Coulthard and a politically expedient Austrian to fly the home flag, by bringing in an underwhelming Christian Klien. But the following year, Dietrich Mateschitz grubbed around down the back of the sofa and found enough cash to buy Minardi, simply to create cockpits for graduates of the Red Bull Junior Driver Programme.
Chosen by talent spotter Helmut Marko, from karting and junior formulae series from around the globe, if you were called up, that was it, you were in the Red Bull army now and you did as you were told. And why wouldn’t you when a potential F1 drive was on offer if you could make the grade? Bahrain was the opening round of the 2006 season and Toro Rosso made its debut with 2004 F3000 champion Tonio Liuzzi driving alongside Stars ‘n Stripes prospect Scott Speed. Two rookies in a rookie team was always going to be tough and so it proved, but the Italian and the American were kept on for 2007, except that Speed was dropped mid-season after an altercation with team boss Franz Tost that even came to blows in the garage. He was replaced by a fresh faced Sebastian Vettel.
The German has to be proof positive that Red Bull’s junior academy really works, right? Well, only up to a point because Vettel had been brought into F1 by BMW and had already proved his worth in free practice sessions and when he finished in the points on his debut with the German team, replacing the indisposed Robert Kubica. The 2008 Toro line-up was plain weird: wunderkind Vettel teamed with the most down in the mouth Frenchman on the planet, Sebastien Bourdais. Gerhard Berger was still a team boss at Toro Rosso in those days and we can assume his friendship with Bourdais’ manager, Nicolas Todt had something to do with the choice. The Frenchman also came packaged with the worst case of IRD (Interfering Racing Dad) the world has ever seen!
By this time, a bottleneck of Junior Driver Programmes was forming an orderly if impatient queue to get a drive and in 2009, Bourdais was teamed with Sebastien Buemi. The Swiss wasn’t really ready for F1, at least not in the warm, cuddly and nurturing environment of a squad run by Franz Tost with nanny duties taken care of by Marko. For Bourdais the writing was on the wall and he got booted out mid-season, replaced by Jaime Alguersuari. If there’s one driver whom I feel really had his career wrecked by his rapid promotion, the Spaniard would be it. He got in the cockpit in Hungary, having no F1 experience whatsoever, apart from doing a Show Run. He produced some strong drives, but not enough to see him moved upstairs to Red Bull Racing and he couldn’t say at Toro, because the conveyor belt bringing new drivers along simply never stops moving.
In 2012 we saw another line-up that was 100% made up of graduates from the Red Bull programme, in the shape of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. Previously the Australian endured a half-season with HRT and to date is the best success story to come out of the drinks company’s staircase of talent. Vergne was tipped to be a true racer, really aggressive and the next French champion. Unfortunately for Jev, the staircase was rather like the one at the back of the main grandstand at the Indian GP circuit, in that it went up, but it led nowhere.
What’s that kerchunk kerchunk noise? It’s the sound of yet another youngster bashing against the door to Faenza as the conveyor belt, insensitive to any logjam ahead, just keeps delivering new drivers and in ever increasing numbers: cue Kvyat who was then shoved up to the Big School when he was patently not ready, simply because of the need to bring Carlos Sainz along. And this is where things got really crowded, because even a blind man – or a one eyed man in the case of Marko – could see that Max Verstappen was the real deal and when you've got the Bank of Mateschitz Debit Card in your pocket, if there’s something you want, you just buy it, if only to make sure no one else does.
Today’s situation was created by a couple of factors. Firstly Daniil has done himself no favours in recent races, even if the China Crisis with Vettel was not his fault. However, the Russian has been singularly underwhelming in qualifying and generally looked a bit out of his depth. Combine that with the fact that Marko and Co are wetting themselves with impatience to see what Max Verstappen can do and you end up with today’s driver swap. The situation has been further aggravated by the fact that Toro Rosso was expected to be really competitive in these early races, with their 2015 Ferrari engine mated to what is an excellent chassis. However, for a variety of reasons, not all of them of the team’s own making, that hasn’t happened and now, the teams with engines that have room for development should pull ahead in the power stakes.
The Twittersphere has naturally exploded with this news, but you know what, it’s not that significant: Toro Rosso is used to having its championship aspirations sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the senior team and this is not a title-winning year for Red Bull Racing, therefore it’s a good time to experiment.
The interesting question now is how quickly can the two Red Bull teams settle down and get back to business. In the Toro camp, tensions will run high. Kvyat will feel like the kid who has been put back a year at school and is likely to overdrive the car. As for Carlos Sainz, he might have a safe seat, but while everyone has tried to maintain that he is every bit as good as Verstappen, the Dutchman’s promotion sends out a clear signal as to how the bosses view the pecking order there. For Red Bull the outlook is more rosy, as Verstappen’s arrival can only serve to ensure that Daniel Ricciardo is kept on his toes. And remember lads, Pierre Gasly, Niko Kari, Luis Leeds and Sergio Sette Camara are waiting in the wings. Not heard of them? Don’t worry, they’ll be appearing in a Grand Prix near you soon.