It has not been the best 18 months for Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat. He has been demoted twice, reinstated (perhaps only temporarily) and now his career as a grand prix driver is under serious threat from New Zealander Brendon Hartley of sportscar fame. However, Hartley’s story and return to a Formula 1 cockpit after five years should not be a deterrent for the young Russian, but should inspire him to consider reinventing himself as a driver.
It is easy to forget that despite four seasons in the sport, Kvyat is still only 23 years old. He was thrusted up into a Toro Rosso race seat at just 19 and into a Red Bull seat alongside Daniel Ricciardo, who quite clearly is one of the best on the grid, merely a year later. He handled himself well in what turned out to be his only full season at the Milton Keynes-based team, by outscoring Ricciardo at the first time of asking – something even Sebastian Vettel couldn’t manage.
Then it all started to fall apart for him in 2016, and he simply hasn’t recovered from that. First came the collisions with Vettel at China and Russia, and the demotion back to Toro Rosso swiftly followed. His new team-mate was Carlos Sainz Jr, who experienced a purple patch once Max Verstappen was out of the way there. The results showed that confidence is very important in F1 – between Spain of last year and Singapore of this year, Sainz decimated Kvyat in terms of points 90-8.
Kvyat’s body language has not always seemed that of a driver who is all okay in the mind since his demotion. The most evident time of this was at last year’s German Grand Prix after qualifying. He’s been stuck in this dark place for a year and a half now, and his performances on the track in the races have often reflected that. This is not the same driver who was able to fight for a race lead at the Circuit of the Americas two years ago.
With Pierre Gasly, who many assume is a certain fixture in Toro Rosso’s permanent line-up in the near future, racing at the Super Formula finale in Japan, Kvyat found himself alongside Hartley for the United States Grand Prix. Hartley’s return to a Toro Rosso seat, seven years after his dropping from Red Bull’s radar, comes as a bit of a surprise. It isn’t, however, the first time that Red Bull (a team seemingly with a philosophy to vault drivers in as young as possible) has taken a punt at an older driver.
The team ran four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais for a season and a half (before being dropped), and veterans such as Takuma Sato and Jenson Button were considered for a drive for 2009. At 27, Hartley is much older than Sainz, Kvyat and Verstappen. But also at 27, Hartley has had time to endure character-building years, discover who he is as a person and reinvent himself as one of the most fearsome drivers to step in one of the epic, all-wheel drive, 1000+bhp hybrid-powered LMP1 monsters that form the current regulations, in its frustratingly short-lived golden era.
Hartley admitted himself that he “was not ready” when he was part of Red Bull’s gruelling programme. After being dropped, it took some time for him to find his feet again, and when he did, did so in a place where many drivers who drop off the F1 radar find a new home – sportscars. After making his way through the ranks in the smaller prototypes, he attracted Porsche. There, he has shown fearsome pace, and has shown vast improvement in every year from 2014 to today. He, alongside Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard, won the World Endurance Championship in 2015, won four times in 2016, and is set to win it again in 2017 with new team-mate Earl Bamber. In addition, Hartley won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time this year.
So, there’s little to question Hartley’s credentials as a racing driver. He gave Helmut Marko a phone call, and he has been given this wonderful opportunity to chase his dream despite it seemingly being eroded at the turn of this decade. There is every chance that Hartley, who is set to be unemployed at the end of the year as Porsche is pulling out of the WEC, could well be racing in F1 in 2018, despite being as old as he is. If it is at Kvyat’s expense, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Russian. Because what it would do is give him a chance to regroup and perhaps put himself on a path not to dissimilar to the one Hartley went on.
At 23, with four years of grand prix racing under his belt, Kvyat is in an unusual position where he is both young and experienced. This experience, some of which with Red Bull remember, would be of colossal value to any team in any category. LMP1, in terms of the awesome hybrid era, is all but dead. However, the expectation is that the privateers will become the main show, even if Toyota turns up and cruises to Le Mans wins and a championship. One of those privateers will be the Russian SMP Racing team.
SMP has a good pedigree in racing, having sponsored drivers and run teams over the past few years. It has Mikhail Aleshin (another former Red Bull junior) testing the new car, and it would not be surprising to see a number of Russian faces in that car for next year. Kvyat, arguably the most famous Russian driver around at the moment, would be a fine asset to that team. For Kvyat, being at a small, private team, might do him more good as the pressure is likely to be less than in the very tricky Red Bull hierarchy. This is not to say that Kvyat should tell Red Bull to “go and do one” and run off to this new programme as such, but shows that there are options away from F1 out there for him.
Time away from F1 in general would do Kvyat good. He needs to rediscover a love for racing, and to start enjoying it again. Maybe then, his performances will return to the sort of level they were in 2015, before the confidence-crushing phase of early 2016, in which he clearly still has not recovered from.
At 23, it’s too early to have decided whether Kvyat will ever be good enough to be a world champion or not. Drivers of that age should not be written off after one or two poor seasons, when they have shown such promise in the past. Yes, Sainz absolutely crushed him, but the outright score hasn’t always reflected the performances. The speed is evidently still there, and the qualifying record between Kvyat and Sainz this year reflected that.
And at his age, Kvyat likely has another 15 years in him at the very least. That is more than enough time to rediscover a love for racing, reinvent himself as a driver and to perhaps come back on the radar of F1 teams once again. He could well thrive in a privateer-dominated LMP1 class, which would raise eyebrows in F1’s paddock. Hartley has proven that it can be done, so he should pay attention to that.