Max Verstappen’s promotion to Red Bull Racing felt like a good ‘old-fashioned’ Formula 1 news story when it was announced. It wasn’t so much what had happened, but the timing of it that spoke volumes.
Grand prix racing is as ruthless an exponent of the evolutionary theory as you will find in top level sport. It is an environment where even talented, highly rated drivers can be dispensed with to make way for a sparkling, once-in-a-generation prodigy. It remains a matter of opinion, rather than record, as to whether Max Verstappen measures up to that bill - although the evidence suggests he could do - and Red Bull’s hard-nosed driver manager Helmut Marko obviously believes this is the time for him to show it. Daniil Kvyat is the man to suffer as a result.
But when observed through the Darwinian prism, it’s not at all surprising to see Red Bull promote the exciting Dutchman, all but 18, to its multiple championship-winning ‘A-Team’ in place of the Russian who has been moved back to Toro Rosso - effective immediately - in spite of his recent podium in the Chinese Grand Prix.
As of next weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, Verstappen will sit in the opposite side of the garage to established three-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo - a move which may ultimately give everyone a clearer barometer with which to measure the depth of both drivers’ ability.
No specific reason has been given for the switch of the two drivers within the Red Bull campus, but Kvyat’s move south comes off the back of a disastrous Russian grand prix in Sochi. In his home race he twice crashed into Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion himself a product of the Austrian energy drinks company’s talent ladder.
That said, it may be a mistake to assume that Kvyat’s form is in fact the reason for Verstappen’s promotion. Red Bull clearly believes the latter brings something special to the mix.
It’s been clear for a while that Verstappen has megastar potential. His ability to manage a car’s changing trajectory, dance it comfortably on the edge of oblivion and carry uncommon momentum through the apex of corner is all part of a complex, confident psychological make-up that always seems prominent in the precocious drivers.
Experts like Sky commentator and ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle have for some time compared Verstappen to Ayrton Senna in both his exciting on-track approach and his single-minded, unflustered off-track conviction. And you could argue that there are some similarities with Michael Schumacher’s rise to prominence.
Schumacher’s break famously came at Spa in 1991, when he stood in for the incarcerated Bertrand Gachot at Jordan. He qualified seventh on his first visit to the challenging Belgian circuit, having spent just a single day testing a Formula 1 car. Two weeks later he had taken Roberto Moreno’s seat at Benetton. At the time some were up in arms about the injustice of it all. Moreno, after all, is a lovely guy and one not without gift behind a wheel. But after seven world championships no one thought it was the wrong decision to sign Schumacher.
It was interesting to see Jenson Button tweet - “One bad race and Kvyat’s dropped, what about the podium in the previous race?” - on hearing the news. And he makes a good point. Kvyat could easily have built on his Shanghai podium with an approach that nurtured his confidence. That said, if Verstappen goes on to win world championships for Red Bull then Kvyat’s demotion will probably be forgotten two years from now.
Verstappen comes from strong stock. His father Jos is a veteran of 107 grands prix himself and was a class winner in the 2008 Le Mans 24 Hours, while his mother is Sophie Kumpen, who in her time was a kart racer of serious pedigree. But neither his talent nor his Red Bull backing are guarantees that Max will succeed.
There are typical F1 politics to consider, too. Verstappen is almost halfway through a three-year contract with Red Bull and there are future positions not yet confirmed at both Mercedes and Ferrari. RBR needs to both evaluate Verstappen and also, perhaps, to show a level of commitment to the 18-year-old whose performances have made him a coveted commodity since he became the youngest driver ever to enter the sport at beginning of 2015.
Marko, a one-time 1970’s F1 driver and a successful team owner in junior categories as well as the head of Red Bull’s extensive driver programme (the roots of which descend all the way down into karting), is a particularly ruthless proponent of the Darwinian theory. When you sign into Red Bull’s programme, it’s a double-edged sword. For some, like Ricciardo and Vettel, it provides the budgetary means to make it to the very top, but others, if they don’t develop quickly enough, can be dropped before they've had a chance to reach their full potential. Just ask Sébastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley, who have since bagged titles in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
A further unhelpful by-product is that should you be dropped from the Red Bull programme, it can create the appearance that, ultimately, you do not have the chops - which is perhaps unfair given the way humans develop through their talent, and at what age it flowers. Moreover, if you have four very talented youngsters racing for you in F1, and only two seats in the top team, two are going to have to miss out, right?
It’s a sign that Marko thinks highly enough of Kvyat that he’s still in the stable with STR and not dropped altogether.
F1 teams like Red Bull leave nothing on the table when they go out to race, and it will not have moved Verstappen up with a view to making one of its RB12s slower. Red Bull will have seen the data of both young drivers and it will know more about each's potential than any outsider.
Any world championship winning team’s goal is to begin a race with the fastest potential package available. Verstappen is now part of Red Bull’s and it’s up to him what he does with it.