I was once told a story about Helmut Marko. He grew up with Jochen Rindt, and in their younger years the two soon-to-be racers would borrow their fathers’ cars late at night and go racing around the snowy, icy Austrian hills. No permission was sought, so perhaps steal is a better description. Either way, the rules were simple. If you crashed, you were on your own. The other guy wouldn’t wait for you. He wouldn’t help you out of the snowdrift, tree or ditch into which you’d planted yourself. And he’d never admit to being there. The responsibility was yours. You were alone.
I cannot say that I know Helmut Marko (below) well. But this story, from someone who does, illustrates to me the foundations of the manner in which he goes about his business. No second chances. No handouts. No help. You are on your own.
Thus has it ever been in the Red Bull driver program. The company gives its drivers support by way of finance. For the emotional stuff … well, you’d better have a phenomenal support network behind you. Or a backbone made of titanium.
Was Dany Kvyat relegated to Toro Rosso for his first-lap misdemeanors in Russia? I don’t believe so, but the timing hasn’t done Red Bull any favors.
At the Chinese Grand Prix, Christian Horner was full of praise for the podium-finishing Kvyat, telling the world that the Russian was riding the crest of a wave and “driving fantastically.” Twenty days later, the same man said the same driver needed to return to Toro Rosso to “regain his form and show his potential.”
The treatment of Kvyat by Red Bull Racing has upset a fan base already disillusioned with the outfit. This once PR-savvy, marketing-led fan favorite lost a huge amount of public goodwill after petulant outbursts against its engine supplier, rival teams and the sport itself in 2015, coupled with a threat to quit the sport if it didn’t gets its way. Its dumping of a driver two weeks after he took a podium and was voted “Driver of the Day” has further cemented Red Bull and Dr Marko into the role of Formula 1’s pantomime villains.
But this treatment of drivers as throwaway collateral is nothing new. From its first years in F1 through to today, from its junior ranks to its top teams, every driver bar one has been eminently disposable. Only three drivers have ever won races for Red Bull or Toro Rosso: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo. How many others were let go that might have done better?
Vitantonio Liuzzi, Sebastian Bourdais, Jaime Alguersuari – all had race wins in them. It’s hard to argue that Robert Doornbos, Christian Klien, Sebastian Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Scott Speed and Neel Jani didn’t have at least podiums in them. Wins on their day. Robert Wickens, Antonio Felix da Costa, Dean Stoneman, Brendon Hartley and Tom Dillmann could have shone. Some of them never had the chance to taste F1 machinery. Of those listed who did, few were given the time to develop, mature and become the complete racers who might have achieved so much.
But Red Bull’s bar is set by the best that they have. As such, it is constantly being raised, and thus the requirements for remaining in a seat and on the program grow ever higher. Expectations go from being high, to nigh on impossible. And those who can’t keep up are chopped immediately. Because Red Bull aren’t looking for someone as good as the best that they have; they’re looking for someone better. And when the best you’ve had is Sebastian Vettel, it’s a very high barometer.
Mark Webber was an able No. 2, but he was not a Vettel-beater. Whenever Red Bull felt they had someone on the same trajectory as Vettel, they sped him through the junior ranks to F1. Alguersuari is a fine example; so too are Vergne and Ricciardo. But Ricciardo for me was always the one in which Red Bull and Marko held the most hope. Because when they first brought him to F1 they did so not with Toro Rosso but with HRT. They placed him alongside Tonio Liuzzi, who had fared favorably alongside Vettel when teammates at STR. If Ricciardo could get on terms with Liuzzi, it said much about his prospects.
Of course Ricciardo compared more than favorably with Liuzzi, and his promotion to the top table was almost guaranteed from that point. What nobody could have expected, however, was that he would so dominate Vettel when they finally became teammates. Nor that Vettel would then walk away.
Was Ricciardo Red Bull’s new benchmark? Or had Vettel had a bad year? It follows that if Ricciardo had beaten Vettel over the course of a season, under Marko’s cold and ruthless assessment structure, Seb might have been close to the chop. But Vettel is Red Bull’s untouchable. Even now, his opinion holds sway with the top management. His departure left the team hurt, and with a dilemma.
Kvyat (left, during Russian Grand Prix) was only a year into his Toro Rosso gig against Vergne, but the team already knew Ricciardo to be a better prospect than the Frenchman. In an ideal world Vergne would have been pitched, Carlos Sainz brought in alongside Kvyat and time taken to see which driver had the measure of which at STR. Instead, Kvyat would be promoted as the only option the team had, with Sainz moved to Toro Rosso alongside new signing Max Verstappen to once again pitch the new blood against each other.
Kvyat was a stopgap. A necessity. He might have outscored Ricciardo last season, but much of that had to do with reliability. Ricciardo is one of the megas. He’s up there with the Vettels, Hamiltons and Alonsos. Was Kvyat ever a world-beater? I don’t think so. Would he have been a Sainz-beater? Again, I don’t know. Despite seemingly having the upper hand against Sainz when the two were teammates in Formula BMW, Formula Renault and GP3, I think Kvyat might have struggled with F1-spec Sainz. He’s a far more rounded driver than the often-wayward-if-fast young buck we saw in junior series. Certainly, the Spaniard has compared more than favorably with Verstappen, and so Kvyat should be under no illusions that his task for the remaining 17 races of 2016 will be a tough one.
Marko has said that Kvyat has not been demoted. But he has. And this move could very easily signal the end of his Formula 1 career. Red Bull knows that he is not as fast as Ricciardo. Why then would he be moved back to the A-team? Even if Ferrari gets its wish and pries Ricciardo away from Red Bull with a ludicrous buyout, why would the team now put someone they don’t believe to be good enough back in its top team? It’s Vergne syndrome.
So what awaits? A reserve driver role and a Formula E drive would seem the most likely 2017 outcome. Some people have mentioned Renault, but with Esteban Ocon in the wings and a speedy, rich Russian in Sergey Sirotkin already on their books, Kvyat wouldn’t get a look in. Sadly, as Kvyat is a great guy, it looks like the Formula 1 dream will be over. Aged just 24.
For Max Verstappen, the dream continues. Twenty-five months ago he was making his first open-wheel starts in the Florida Winter Series. Today, after just two full seasons of open-wheel racing, the 18-year-old finds himself at the wheel of a four-time world-championship-winning team’s car.
Things hadn’t been right at Toro Rosso for a while. Verstappen (above) started outgrowing the outfit almost as soon as he arrived. The signals were all there, from denying team orders to the frustration that bubbled over in multiple races, both on the radio and behind closed doors. Marko brought ex-Manor F1 team boss John Booth in at Russia to oversee the operation, a kick in the pants for Franz Tost, who had ruled over a decade of mediocrity at a team which has never made the step forward it perhaps should have.
Verstappen and engineer Xevi Pujolar became so disillusioned that they went against Tost and dictated their own Sochi qualifying strategy. Tost hit the roof. And perhaps at that moment the wheels were set in motion. Verstappen had to be moved before discontent with the manner in which Toro Rosso was run started to make the Dutchman consider other options. No sooner had the news about Verstappen moving to Red Bull hit the headlines than Pujolar was no longer with Toro Rosso, a Night of the Long Knives by Tost against those he believed to have stood against him. All very messy. All very political. All very sad.
As I understand it, Verstappen signed for Toro Rosso on a 2+1 contract. In other words, a two-year deal with a one-year extension option. This week, Verstappen is believed to have signed a new contract in which the plus one has become a plus three – at Red Bull Racing. Guaranteed. So Verstappen will be a Red Bull Racing driver not just for 2016, but 2017-19 too. He won’t be a free agent until 2020, a season he will begin aged just 22.
If he doesn’t perform, he will be out on his ear. As so many of his forebears have discovered, Red Bull and Dr Marko do not have time for those who do not come up to expectations. There is a very real chance that Verstappen could crack under the pressure, fail to live up to the hype and be on that Red Bull scrap heap before hitting his twenties.
But I don’t think that he will. From the first time I ever saw him in an open-wheel racecar one thing has been certain in my mind. Verstappen isn’t just good. He isn’t just great. If designers can take a car to the edge of what is physically possible, Max Verstappen can make that car dance to the point of appearing to go beyond the realms of what we know to be physically possible.
He isn’t a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Time to shine, Max. But be careful what you wish for.