Grand Prix notebook

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Behind closed doors in Fuschi-am-See (Austria) and Milton Keynes late last year, it had already been talked about: promoting Max Verstappen from the junior Toro Rosso squad to Red Bull, with Daniil Kvyat being demoted to make room. The Red Bull junior driver programme is a pitilessly demanding regime and Kvyat was adjudged by the scheme’s boss Helmut Marko to have underperformed last year, after being promoted to the main squad to replace Ferrari-bound Sebastian Vettel. The Russian had outscored Daniel Ricciardo over the season, but that was just the way the reliability cookie crumbled for each of them; the underlying performance between them indicated that Kvyat was rarely on Ricciardo’s pace. In fact, the qualifying average gap between them – in the races where comparison was possible – was bigger than that between team-mates anywhere except Ferrari.

Verstappen the 17-year-old rookie, on the other hand, had been creating something of a sensation at Toro Rosso. His racecraft and calm control allowed him to pull off a series of improbable passing moves, the way he got the car rotated so early into a slow corner buying him both lap time and tyre life, the irrepressible competitive spirit leading him into occasional conflict with the pitwall – but that was considered a positive. All these things, and the sort of bravery that had him passing a Sauber around the outside of Blanchimont at 190mph – or indeed trying a pass on Kvyat around the outside of 130R, a little bit of eighth-gear opposite lock over the exit to control the consequences. Such tell-tales had been noted. This was potentially a very special Grand Prix driver. 

But it wasn’t only Red Bull noticing these things; it was the rest of the watching world, including Mercedes and Ferrari, both of whom had been in touch. If Red Bull was going to hold onto Verstappen in the long term, they needed to offer something equally attractive. After Kvyat had been told around Suzuka-time last year he needed to up his performance if he was to remain in the main team (see Motor Sport, December 2015), the result of him pushing yet harder was him rolling the car in qualifying… But internally, there was a counter-prevailing view to Marko’s about promoting the teenager to the big team. Christian Horner felt Kvyat still had something we hadn’t seen clearly yet, that it had maybe been an underperformance rather than a shortfall of potential, that he deserved a little more time. Did Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz have the final say? 

Whatever, the internal compromise was a loose 2016 plan whereby Kvyat would be given the half-season up to Silverstone to make an overwhelming case for himself. Otherwise the swap would be made after the British Grand Prix. This was not communicated to the drivers. “Red Bull is in a unique position where we have four cockpits,” pointed out Horner. “We have an awful lot of information about the drivers. They come through the junior programme, we see how they develop on the simulator, we analyse their performance in the car, we generate a huge amount of data, knowledge, information, together with other testing that we do with the drivers. We came to the conclusion that Daniil has been struggling a little bit for form compared to his team-mate, that there had been a consistent pattern there.”

Kvyat’s performance in China had been pretty good, his third place there based on what Vettel described as a “kamikaze move” at the first corner. Otherwise, from Red Bull’s demanding perspective, there was nothing exceptional about the drive; he achieved what the car should have done, nothing more. He had again been outqualified by team-mate Ricciardo, this time by a full 0.4sec. A big margin for any team-mate, a disastrous one in these circumstances.

Two weeks later we were at Kvyat’s home race in Sochi and the pressure he was under can only be imagined, especially after being outqualified once more by Ricciardo. As if sniffing opportunity in the air, the in-team competition at Toro Rosso had intensified. John Booth – ex-Manor team boss – had been brought in by Marko in an attempt at soothing the waters between the Verstappen and Carlos Sainz camps. Booth got an idea of the job on his hands after Verstappen and his race engineer Xevi Pujolar went against the agreed team plan in their choice of tyres during qualifying – something that potentially might have proved crucial in Verstappen beating Sainz on race day – and team boss Franz Tost had a public stand-up row with the engineer. Career-defining opportunities and massive pressures…  

So the gantry lights went out and behind the race-leading Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, there was a tight slipstreaming squabble between the Red Bulls and Vettel’s Ferrari through the first flat-out sweep and down to the braking area for the tight Turn Two, a layout that invites incident. Vettel pulled a beautiful move to Kvyat’s inside. Daniil in turn had Ricciardo to his outside and was desperately trying to position himself ahead. They brake there from 190mph down to about 50. There was an inevitable concertina effect as Vettel braked while Kvyat was trying to grind ahead of Ricciardo – and the front of Daniil’s car hit the Ferrari, knocking it into Ricciardo. A few broadside moments, but on they all continued building speed through the parabolica of Turn Three, with Kvyat still right beneath Vettel’s rear wing. At which point Seb, sensing that he might have a damaged car or puncture, backed off… Kvyat couldn’t avoid hitting him again – much harder this time. The Ferrari speared off into the wall, Vettel turned the airwaves blue, the races of both Red Bulls had been ruined as they each limped back to the pits for repairs. By the time Putin turned up a few laps from the end, the home boy was running an undistinguished 15th, a long way behind Rosberg, winner of his seventh consecutive Grand Prix. 

“People saw what happened in Sochi as a catalyst,” said Horner at the next race, in Barcelona, in the lead-up to which Red Bull had confirmed the Kvyat-Verstappen swap with immediate effect. Horner: “Rather than waiting until later in the year we elected to get on and do that in time for the European season… Obviously an awful lot more than just one Sunday afternoon is considered.”

Predictably, Verstappen and Kyvat were each called up by the FIA for the Thursday press conference and the Russian was in a feisty frame of mind. “I was in Moscow on my sofa at home watching a TV series,” Kvyat said when asked where he was when he received the phone call from Marko. “There was a 20-minute talk… I wanted and I think deserved an explanation. I got to know many interesting details, I must say, which I will keep to myself for now…

“I feel like I’ve done everything for the team. I feel like I’ve been bringing the points, I’ve been bringing all the development work. We’ve been working well together. So, why [I was taken out of the senior team] is a question for other people who made the decision. I think they can give a better answer to that. I really don’t see many reason.”

Asked what TV series he’d been watching, he replied: “Oh, Game of Thrones.” Whether that was true or not, it was a superb answer. Asked then about how the tyre allocation worked, he explained that he and Verstappen each retained the choices made for the specific car, not the driver. “But I get to keep my points,” Kvyat pointed out with an underlying chippy message. “And my podium.” 

But then 18-year-old Max Verstappen went and won the Spanish Grand Prix, setting a new record for the youngest ever Formula 1 victor on his very first drive for the senior team! It was an extraordinary turn of events, put into place by Rosberg forgetting to change a switch from formation lap mode to race mode when sitting on the grid. He beat pole-winning team-mate Lewis Hamilton into the first corner but, as he deselected launch mode through Turns Two-Three, so the engine reverted to formation-lap mode – and Hamilton came out of there with masses more power, gaining fast. Rosberg immediately made for the inside, intent on showing no compromise, just as Hamilton was making a determined bid for the closing gap. They had the full-on first lap accident that they’ve always been destined to have, two Mercs in the gravel trap – and suddenly a fantastic race was in prospect: Red Bull vs Ferrari, all four cars in the mix.  

The way it played out for Verstappen – rather than Ricciardo, who had outqualified the new boy handily – to win was a strategic throw of the dice, something Ferrari’s greater race pace forced upon Red Bull. Ricciardo and Verstappen were running one-two in the first stint, but Vettel was quickly upon them. Although he couldn’t pass on track, the German was close enough behind, early enough in the race, that he could possibly have passed both Red Bulls by stopping before them. To defend against this, Red Bull had to ensure they pitted before Vettel – and to split the strategy between two stops and three. A three-stopper was theoretically faster at this stage – and so Ricciardo was put on this strategy, Verstappen left on a two. At Ferrari, Vettel was put on a three, Kimi Räikkönen a two. The three was quicker than a two only if an unknown variable – how much the track improved – played out as calculated. But it didn’t. The track evolved so that the medium tyres on which the two-stoppers were running remained OK for more than 30 laps (about five more than forecast). The newer tyres of the three-stoppers were not faster by a big enough margin to buy the time of the extra pitstop. So the fight for victory distilled down to Verstappen vs Räikkönen, the youngest and the oldest in the field. Kimi pressed Max hard, but crucially didn’t have the Red Bull’s traction out of the final chicane, meaning he could never get close enough at the end of the straight to pass. Several seconds behind them, Vettel prevailed over a frustrated Ricciardo for third. 

Max Verstappen was even hotter property now. But in exchange for his promotion, the Verstappens had agreed he sign a long-term Red Bull contract. And so the Game of Thrones played out.