When Daniel Ricciardo was announced prior to the 2013 Italian Grand Prix as the replacement for Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing few were surprised, after all team principal Christian Horner had publicly declared that only he or Kimi Raikkonen were in the running, but with Raikkonen declaring that talks with Red Bull had broken down it still took a month for the boy from Perth to be anointed into the prized position. As one driver switches seats, another emerges, but amongst many in the paddock the replacement was a mere formality with Antonio Felix Da Costa expected to take Ricciardo’s place. That was until the powers that are at Red Bull opted to go with 19 year-old Russian Daniil Kvyat. While many were quick to declare the surprise signing as attributable to bucks over bang, others have come to the Russian’s defence, even going so far as to say that there is nothing to say that Kvyat couldn’t be the next Sebastian Vettel.
What is the weight to this endorsement? Does Kvyat have the talent to be a future champion? Does he even have the ability to be worthy of a drive in Formula 1?
Kvyat (pronounced “key-fiat”) was a member of the 2013 Red Bull Junior Team, competing this past season for MW Arden in GP3 and for Carlin in the European Formula 3 Championship. In GP3 he managed three victories in the three feature races at Spa, Monza and Abu Dhabi, all current Formula 1 circuits. These wins together with consistent finishes in the top seven and only two retirements ensured he was crowned champion by seasons end. His competition in GP3 however is somewhat questionable with eventual series runner-up, 22 year-old Argentinian Facu Regalia, coming to the series with a seventh in the 2012 Auto GP World Series Championship with two podiums from ten starts. Other competitors in the field included Cypriat Tio Elinas and 2012 British Formula 3 Champion Jack Harvey. There are two important things to read from Kvyat’s performances in GP3 this year and that is his domination over fellow Red Bull Junior Team member and MW Arden team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr. who achieved victories in three categories of F3 racing in 2012, and the simple fact that at 19 years-old Kyvat was the youngest driver of the top 9 finishes in the championship.
While history has shown there is no ideal way to enter Formula 1, debate will still forever remain over what feeder category is the best way to enter the sport? Should a driver be promoted from a series that does not promote itself as a pre-cursor to Formula 1? You certainly can’t blame Kyvat for taking the opportunity that’s been presented to him.
After all, look at Mitch Evans, the 2012 GP3 champion for MW Arden, who has endured a difficult season for Arden International in the GP2 category with a top 3 qualifying spot in Monaco one of few notable highlights. Yet Evans was able to outscore his teammate Johnny Cecotto Jnr. which is more than could be said for 2012 GP3 runner-up Daniel Abt who was completely out-classed by teammate James Calado at ART Grand Prix. Evans is only a month older than Kyvat so was younger when he won his GP3 championship and did so against the likes of Antonio Felix Da Costa, the man tipped to take Ricciardo’s position and who finished third in this years Formula Renault 3.5 championship behind McLaren’s 21 year-old prodigies Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne. So is Kyvat better than the likes of GP2 front-runners Fabio Leimer, Sam Bird and James Calado or Formula Renault 3.5 drivers Magnussen and Vandoorne, not too mention the 2012 GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi?
The short answer in my opinion is “no”. I think if you put Kyvat in GP2 next season alongside Mitch Evans at Arden International, Evans would come out on top. But even before you get to Evans, experienced campaigners like James Calado and Sam Bird deserve the drive before that of Kyvat. The only problem is that getting into Formula 1 is not like ascending the ranks in the military, it’s more like performing a heist on a heavily sealed bank vault. Some will access it via the most elaborate and expensive means possible while others will do their research, ask the right questions in order to befriend those with the keys to the door, others will perform a smash and grab job while some will simply possess the innate ability to pick the lock and crack the safe. Regardless of what means a driver adopts to get into Formula 1, it’s what they do once inside that will determine whether they reap the rewards.
Formula 1 is littered with drivers that have starred in lesser categories, only to under perform when seated in a Formula 1 car. The most recent example of this would be Vitantonio Liuzzi who went into free-fall at Torro Rosso, bounced off rocks at Force India on his way to oblivion at HRT.
This despite winning the 2004 International F3000 championship with 7 wins and 9 pole positions from 10 starts. But at least Liuzzi got seven seasons which is more than could be said for Australia’s Dave Walker who won 25 out of 32 Formula 3 races for Lotus in 1971, only to manage no better than ninth alongside eventual Formula 1 World Championship-winning team mate Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972. Walker blamed poor machinery for his calamitous debut season in Formula 1, an excuse that could still hold up to this very day, because Walker never got another chance in the sport. On this issue there are some good signs for Kyvat in that by debuting at a young age and in a team with the lesser performance expectations of Toro Rosso, Kyvat will be nurtured through his first season in Formula 1, as has been the case with graduating Red Bull drivers in the past. Equally, in a season that will commence with so much change, it may be the perfect opportunity for a debut driver, immune to the potential frustration that drivers of the V8 era may incur when coming to grips with the radically new machinery for 2014.
While Kyvat wouldn’t be my first choice of the drivers currently available, that is no reason to suggest he can’t succeed, plenty have before him, Kimi Raikkonen had only competed in 23 open-wheel races prior to his debut at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix, Jenson Button was plucked from a successful stint in British F3 and second in the Macau Grand Prix, and Sebastian Vettel moved from a full series of F3 Euroseries in 2006 in which he finished runner-up in the championship to his team mate Paul di Resta. In this light Kyviat certainly has the ability to be in Formula 1, even if he may not deserve the drive ahead of more experienced contenders, his talent is clear for all to see. However, is he the next Sebastian Vettel?
It must be said from the outset that even Vettel himself would concede that in order for him to have had the career he has had thus far in Formula 1, a few cards have fallen his way. A driver can have all the talent in the world but if he arrives at a team at the wrong time he can quickly find his record falling well short of expectation. The classic example is Jean Alesi who, after a stellar season at Tyrrell in 1990, couldn’t resist the lure of driving for Ferrari despite having signed a contract for Williams. As history shows, the decision couldn’t have been more catastrophic on the French-Sicillian’s career as the 5 years that followed saw Williams win 38 grand prix to Ferrari’s 2. Effectively, say what you will about the potential that Kvyat brings on his arrival to Formula 1 but what results he achieves are in the lap of the gods.
Does Kvyat come to Formula 1 with the same potential as that of Sebastian Vettel? For me there are two things that stand out in Vettel’s career upon his arrival into Formula 1 in 2007 that are not as apparent with Kvyat. Vettel’s 2004 season in the Formula BMW ADAC championship speaks volumes of the 17 year-old at that time. In 20 races Vettel achieved 18 wins, 14 pole positions, 13 fastest laps and 20 podium places, and all this in a one-make series against 26-car fields alongside drivers like Sebastien Buemi. Footage of the season can be found here. This ability at such a young age to put a season of such dominance together speaks volumes about Vettel’s talents. Kvyat does not have such a season under his belt, in fact his two seasons in Formula BMW Pacific/Europe in 2010 were by no means earth shatteringly good. But if there is anything that puts Vettel ahead of Kvyat and ensures the Russian remains somewhat of an unknown quantity for next season, it is Vettel’s season in the 2005 F3 Euroseries and, in particular, the competition faced by the young German. In a field that consisted of eventual Formula 1 drivers Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta, Lucas Di Grassi, Giedo Van de Garde, and Formula 1 test driver James Rossiter, Vettel finished fifth in the championship in his debut season. While the season undoubtedly demonstrated the talents of Lewis Hamilton, Vettel displayed his ability to compete with Hamilton at a younger age and with less experience in an F3 car most notably in their brilliant battle at Lausitz. With the instant success of Hamilton at the beginning of 2007, Vettel’s debut came with notable anticipation because he had shown himself capable of competing with the British championship contender, something that Kyviat will not be able to claim next year.
As an interesting piece of history here is the only footage I could find of Vettel preparing for his first Formula 1 race at the 2007 United States Grand Prix. If only Martin Brundle had prioritised speaking with the 19 year-old German, we may well have heard from him prior to his debut race.
I think the argument that Kyvat has only been chosen to go into Formula 1 because he is Russian has one major flaw and that is that Kyvat was chosen by Red Bull well before he presented himself as a potential Formula 1 candidate. It is in Red Bull’s interests, and that of the sport and equally of the fans, that Red Bull seek out young talent that have qualities that will assist their brand. You may notice in the 2013 Red Bull Junior Team 18 year-old female driver Beitske Visser, who is not yet showing the potential for a Formula 1 seat, but in whom Red Bull are conscious of the enormous reward that would come from having a successful female driver in Formula 1. Kyvat’s Russian nationality may well have influenced his selection to the prized role of the Red Bull Junior Team but this never guaranteed him a drive at Torro Rosso. Since being chosen you can’t deny that the Russian deserves the chance to be on a Formula 1 grid, even if it is a year or two early, and you can’t criticise a system that looks to support and nuture entertaining talent with different nationalities, who would otherwise not have had the chance to benefit from such experience in the quest to enter Formula 1.
Finally, if Kvyat’s performances in the first Friday practice sessions in both the United States and Brazil are anything to go by then he will be assured of gaining the attention of the senior team in no time at all. On two wildly different styles of circuit, amid contrasting weather conditions, Kyvat was .2 seconds slower than Ricciardo in the USA but a staggering .5 seconds quicker than his French team mate for 2014, Jean-Eric Vergne, in the rain at Brazil. Even after his promising start at the Circuit of the Americas Kvyat remained very focused on the job ahead of him.
As good as Vettel at the time of entering Formula 1? No. Most deserving of the seat at Toro Rosso? No Talented enough to be in Formula 1? Definitely. Will he emulate Vettel? Bring on 2014.