By Michael Cords
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
In Formula One fortunes change as fast as, well, a Formula One car. In 2016 this is apparent in none more so than Daniil Kvyat. After Sundays’s Singapore Grand Prix Kvyat was all smiles, a ninth-place finish scant reward for a strong drive. However it was the journey of this race, not the destination that brought the smiles to the driver and his team. For the first time in several months Kvyat drove with a confidence and flair that has been lacking for most of the year.
The highs and lows came fast in 2016. The young Russian took a fine podium finish in the Chinese Grand Prix, then 18 days later found himself demoted back to the Toro Rosso junior team. Red Bull made noises about reducing the pressure on Kvyat following his collision with Sebastian Vettel at the Russian Grand Prix, but it wasn’t convincing. Red Bull wanted to move up their new star, Max Verstappen, and lock him in before the allure of other teams tempted him away. Kvyat’s first lap collision was as good an excuse as any. And so it was that Daniil found his career trajectory headed in a very different direction than planned.
The summer saw Daniil Kvyat looking like a lost man. He did not display any enthusiasm for driving and appeared morose when questioned about his situation. Some in the paddock were concerned for his mental well-being while most believed he would be lucky to last the season. GP2 front-runner Pierre Gasly is anxiously waiting in the wings as reserve driver. In fact, at Monza Helmut Marko had to deny rumors that the Frenchman would replace Kvyat after Singapore. OK, the rumors were started by Gasly himself but it wasn’t hard to believe.
Red Bull and its farm team Toro Rosso are no places for mentally weak drivers. They have developed a stable of talent that outnumbers the racing seats available. As a consequence the competition for those seats is fierce. Drivers must shine immediately or they are dropped to make way for the next young hopeful. This is why Sebastian Buemi drove his last Grand Prix at age 24 and Jaime Alguersuari at 21. Journeymen need not apply.
So what of Daniil Kvyat? Does he have a hope beyond 2016? Based on today’s performance I vote an emphatic yes. Qualifying gave a glimpse of what may come as he lined up alongside his teammate, Carlos Sainz; the two Torro Rossos taking 6th and 7th on the grid. Contact at the start with Nico Hulkenberg would eventually handicap Sainz’s race while Kvyat completed the opening lap in 6th. As the race settled in, Kvyat found himself leading Verstappen who had made a slow getaway off the line. All eyes were on the pair. How would Kvyat race the man who took his place? Would he deliver some sort of payback or merely cave to the superstar. The answer was neither. Kvyat fought hard but fair. On more than one occasion Verstappen was able to get alongside entering a corner. But the Russian held his line and maintained his position on exit. It was thrilling stuff and Daniil never put a foot wrong. Team Principal Franz Tost offered praise, “Daniil did a very good race. He was fighting against Alonso and defended quite well against Max.”
After the race Kvyat exclaimed, “I had good fun and enjoyed some great battles! I pushed until the very last centimeter and left my soul on the track.” His words are a sign that he is back on track with his mind in the right place. A driver who looks forward to getting in the car has confidence and will perform at his best. Toro Rosso would be wise to keep Kvyat around next year if he continues to perform like this. They will miss out if they discard him too early. Look no further than Carlos Sainz. Starting 2015 he had been dropped by the Red Bull program before the departure of Vettel opened a slot for him. Back in the fold he held his own against Verstappen and has continued his growth this year. Time to develop is crucial for some drivers. Who saw Nigel Mansell as a future World Champion after his first two years at Lotus?
Right now Daniil Kvyat is on an upswing. I think it can continue and that we haven’t seen the best of him yet. He has settled back into Toro Rosso and his spirited drive today suggests he has his mojo back. Fortunes change quickly in Formula One. I urge Red Bull to not let Kvyat’s career end too soon.