The recent Azerbaijan Grand Prix was certainly not the pinnacle of Max Verstappen’s career. He wasn’t as quick as teammate Daniel Ricciardo on Friday and qualified behind him on Saturday. Even on Sunday, although he spent a large portion of the race ahead of the Australian, there was no denying Ricciardo’s pace. In the end it was that speed and Max’s defence that cut short their Grand Prix.
Both drivers were blamed by the team, but in the end it was the Dutchman who came off worse in the media. He’s been involved in at least one skirmish every race so far (to varying results) and is the only driver in the top three teams to still be behind a midfield competitor in the standings.
There is no doubting Verstappen’s raw pace and his rugged driving style has made him a fan favourite. With Ricciardo rumoured to be off to pastures new next season, there’s even suggestion the team are favouring him. But with 18 points from three rounds, is there a call for concern.
It’s worth remembering, that Verstappen’s grace into the Red Bull team came at the cost of another. Daniil Kvyat to be precise.
Like Verstappen, the Russian came into Toro Rosso off the back of a third-tier title (although in this case it was GP3) with much hype around him. Kvyat only scored 8 points in his opening season, made more note-worthy by the fact teammate Jean-Eric Vergne scored 22. Vergne though was in his third season and was expected to lead. By the end of the year it became apparent that the Frenchman was on his way out anyway, with more talent coming up from below.
With Sebastian Vettel off to Ferrari, Kvyat was thrown into the Red Bull Racing team in only his second season. Despite this he performed.
It was a slow start, sure, but by the middle of the campaign was a regular at the front, in a season where RBR was only the fourth best outfit. By the end of the year he’d picked up a maiden podium and had beaten Ricciardo on points.
The Australian was still more highly rated though. Beating Vettel had raised his stock enormously, with Helmut Marko & Dietrich Mateschitz happy to look past 2015. The same could not be said for Kvyat though and with only two spots available in the team, they were left with a tough problem as a certain Max Verstappen had burst onto the scene.
RBR’s poor performance in 2015 had allowed Verstappen to appear closer on pace and at the start of 2016 Red Bull were all but searching for a way to maintain and promote the sports best young talent in a generation.
Kvyat had picked up the teams first podium of the year at China, but small mistakes seemed like a goldmine for the media who lambasted the Russian after colliding with Vettel at his home Grand Prix. This was the catalyst Red Bull needed and by the next round Verstappen was in the car at Kvyat’s expense.
The Russian could have shrugged this off, but the remainder of the year almost spelt the end for him in F1 as Verstappen picked up a win in his first race with the team, finishing the year fifth and 8 points behind Vettel.
Now in the media spotlight, there was nowhere to hide and over the two years since then, he’s struggled to show his class. A troubled start to 2017 saw him retire from more races he finished. Not all of them were his fault, but for the second season in a row he finished behind Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has collected an equal number of wins while together, but has been a more consistent presence on the podium.
Even if you (rightfully) say Verstappen has not had the car to dominate or win races, you must beat your teammate.
Now entering his fourth season in the sport (third at Red Bull) Verstappen has been handed much criticism from the other drivers and the media for his actions and for the second year in a row, his retirements are costing RBR ground in the constructor’s championship.
The major point to bring up is that no other driver currently has as much hype as the Dutchman, but sooner or later results do need to come first. Carlos Saniz Jr. had been convincingly beaten by Verstappen in their year together at Toro Rosso but since then has done all he’s needed to keep on Red Bull’s radar. He was clearly a class above Kvyat in the two years they had together and one of the top midfield drivers for two years in a row, with his drive at Singapore 2017 and Austin 2016 proving him to be a talent of the future.
2018 has started strongly as well. In Azerbaijan, he and teammate Nico Hulkenberg took the fight directly to RBR and was the only survivor of the quartet, picking up a respectable fifth place, putting him tenth in the standings. Not all results have gone his way this year, but Red Bull kept him as an ‘affiliated driver’ for a reason. To add, quotes like this from Max will not be good for the brand.
“Today was just really disappointing for the Team and we lost many points unnecessarily. I don’t think we need to speak about fault because at the end of the day we are racing for a team” – Max Verstappen
At this point, I’m sure many are desperate to point out the natural progression of the Red Bull Junior team and point to Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley. The Kiwi has been lackluster in F1 so far, picking up a single point, but Gasly surprised many with his march to fourth in Bahrain. Saying this, his relative inexperience, mixed with Red Bull’s desire to challenge for second in the teams standings could lead them to simply import talent from other teams.
And here is the crux of the problem. While Kvyat was at the mercy of Verstappen’s hype during his time at the team, Red Bull have all but given up on their Junior programme (their highest placed driver is in Euro F3) meaning kicking Verstappen will not guarantee their continuous stream of talent continues.
Neither Toro Rosso driver are in a position to challenge for the seat just yet and Renault may make breaking Sainz contract rather expensive so for Red Bull they’re left with two hot-headed young talents and a commitment to uphold.
Verstappen is not unreplacable, but the standards he’s facing at RBR are some of the lowest in the teams history. He can afford to make the mistakes and not rue the consequences.