Daniil Kvyat was the youngest point scorer in F1 history when he took 9th place in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix – which was also his first race in Formula One.
He had come in as GP3 Champion at the age of 19 to replace Daniel Ricciardo, who had been called up to Red Bull. Kvyat immediately went about impressing with a blend of marvellous speed and daring, and while consistent points were hard to come by there was enough promise that when Sebastian Vettel moved on from Red Bull there was no hesitation to call up Kvyat to the main team, just as they had with Vettel in 2009 and Ricciardo the year before.
The Red Bull Young Drivers Programme, where all these guys came from, gave a path to the peak of motorsport for drivers who showed a chance of one day being a champion, but almost as soon as Kvyat stepped into the same garage as Ricciardo things went wrong.
In 2014, his first season with Red Bull, Ricciardo won three races, took 5 other podium finishes, was disqualified from a 5th and finished 3rd in the drivers standings – smashing the four-time champion Vettel and speeding his exit from the team for Ferrari.
Against that level of competition and unbridled potential Kvyat began to burn up. With a more reliable car in 2015 than Ricciardo he edged him in points, but Ricciardo was always faster. There were some great moments, like a battling 2nd place in Hungary, but it was clear who the man was at Red Bull, and who it wasn’t. It was the first time Kvyat’s confidence and self-assuredness was shaken. And behind him was the next in the queue from the Young Drivers Programme – Both Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz debuted for Toro Rosso in 2015, had beaten Kvyat’s 2014 points total and looked to be incredibly fast in doing so.
Kvyat had seen what happened to the likes of Jean-Eric Verge, Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi before him – they were not fast enough and they were quickly replaced by the next man in line. With both Verstappen and Sainz putting Red Bull and the rest of F1 on notice in 2015 Kvyat was always going to have a pressure-filled 2016.
That pressure started to tell immediately when he was caught out with the new qualifying rules and only managed 18th & 15th in Australia and Bahrain. Even in China, where a daring dive up the inside of turn one got him up the field and resulted in a podium finish, he was outshone by Ricciardo. After another lunge early in Russia ruined Ricciardo’s race and his own, Red Bull bosses had seen enough and pulled the trigger on replacing Kvyat with Max Verstappen.
The demotion back to Toro Rosso, the 23-race failed experiment that was his Red Bull Racing career, has shattered Kvyat’s world. The confidence and bravado that made him such a good racer at such a young age have gone – replaced with self-doubt and caution. Verstappen came in and was immediately fast in Kvyat’s old seat. He won the Spanish Grand Prix and has pushed Ricciardo to be even quicker. Together the new Red Bull pairing are beginning to press Mercedes and standing on the podium next to them as Kvyat spirals downward.
Worse for Kvyat than Verstappen getting quality results and staying within touching distance of Ricciardo is that Kvyat is a good distance behind Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso. Some of that can be put down to familiarity with the machinery. The Toro Rosso is a tricky machine to work with, Sainz has had 31 races in a row with it now and Kvyat has had a tough time adjusting from the brilliantly balanced Red Bull back to the far less precise Toro Rosso. Combine that with shattered confidence and you have a breeding ground for self-doubt.
Sainz has out-qualified Kvyat in 6 of the 8 races they have been team-mates. One of the times he didn’t was because he went into the Wall of Champions in Canada, but there too Sainz was faster in Q1 than Kvyat. Where before Kvyat was sure of what he was feeling in the car, able to relay that to the engineers with confidence and solve the problems now he doesn’t know if the issue is him or the car. At the German Grand Prix Kvyat qualified a brutal 19th. When told on the radio he was 19th Kvyat was angry, confused and I think eventually resigned to the enormous failure that it was. In interviews that weekend he truly looked like a broken man who no longer looked like he thought he belonged there.
Red Bull took the understandable decision not to renew his contract for 2017 and barring an incredible turnaround it looks like another young star, Pierre Gasly, will replace him next season. Gasly is currently pushing for the GP2 title, having won two feature races in the series along with two pole positions and three fastest laps. Gasly oozes potential and star quality – 6 months ago it looked like 2017 would be a little too soon to move him up but now it looks like a guarantee that Gasly will be in Formula One next season. It’s not out of the question that it is Gasly, not Kvyat, who takes the seat in Toro Rosso when Formula One returns in Spa at the end of August.
So what for Kvyat? At just 22 years old there is still a good driver with a lot of ability locked somewhere in the whirlwind of scrutiny and self-doubt that has become Kvyat’s world. Maybe the time off over August will help him work through some of the problems that plague his talent, maybe he will just slide a little deeper into this quagmire of despair.
I think he can get out of it and have a produce in Formula One, but he is damaged goods now. Not many drivers get a second chance after a crash in form like this. Kvyat won’t be bringing sponsorship with him like Felipe Nasr or Rio Haryanto have, so he won’t be attractive to the minnow teams. Maybe Renault could take a chance on him, especially if they think they will have an improved package that might be able to break into the top 10. Kvyat has the potential, somewhere, to be a difference maker. However with veterans like Felipe Massa becoming available and their ability to help guide development and driveability would they not be more useful for a growing team?
Unfortunately, 2016 may be the last we see of the young Russian in Formula One. The pressure of F1 has always been high, mostly due to the incredible dangers and risks drivers were taking. Now there is a different kind of pressure on drivers, and Red Bull are the one’s exerting the most on their drivers. The never ending supply of young talent their programme is creating means that the drivers in Toro Rosso and Red Bull are being pressurized more so than any other in motorsport – sometimes that pressure creates diamonds like Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel. But sometimes it will simply shatter drivers, and that is what seems to have happened to Daniil Kvyat.