Having endured a difficult 2016 season, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat is on a mission to put the past behind him. Jennie Gow shares her thoughts on why a change of fortunes might just be on the cards for the young Russian ahead of a big weekend in Sochi.
Stood in a rather bleak looking paddock in Japan, the weather did nothing to reflect the sense of drama and palpable excitement that came as a significant news story broke at the 2014 race in Suzuka.
In Formula One, it’s very hard to keep a secret. Someone invariably finds out and, soon enough – a little like village gossip – everyone is talking about it. Everyone has an opinion. Social media is awash with rumours and, when a news story is eventually confirmed, it feels like the horse has already bolted.
Yet, when Sebastian Vettel decided to tell the world he was to be leaving Red Bull Racing, there was an overwhelming sense of disbelief. That morning, an email dropped into my inbox confirming that Vettel was off to Italy, and that young Russian star Daniil Kvyat was to be promoted from the Toro Rosso Team to partner Daniel Ricciardo for the 2015 season.
Kvyat and Ricciardo were both members of the Red Bull Junior Programme, with the Russian having joined when he was just 15, racing at the time in Formula BMW, alongside current teammate Carlos Sainz.
In 2013, once again racing alongside Sainz in the MW Arden Team, Kvyat became GP3 Champion, shining at the latter end of the season to pick up three wins in the last three races to secure the title.
In October of that year, the dream came true for Kvyat. He received ‘the call’ from his bosses at Red Bull that he would be competing in F1. The path was made clear by Daniel Ricciardo, who stepped up to take over from the retiring Mark Webber. Yes, F1 is indeed a small world!
At just 19 years of age, Dany Kvyat made his F1 debut at the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. Finishing a very respectable 9th, Kvyat had broken Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest points-scorer in Formula One history. The record would stand for over a year – until the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix, when a 17-year-old Max Verstappen scored points in what was just his second Grand Prix.
All looked set for the Russian to shine. With two podiums to his name by early 2016, he had already achieved what many can only dream of.
The first of those podiums – coming in Hungary in 2015, when he finished second behind Sebastian Vettel – remains the highest finish for a Russian driver in F1. Kvyat ended the 2015 season with 95 points, placing 7th place in the World Drivers’ Championship and finishing ahead of Ricciardo by three points.
At the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix, Kvyat scored his second career podium – finishing in 3rd place behind Nico Rosberg and, once again, Vettel. Heading to his home race, it was hard to believe that the fairy-tale was all about to come crashing down.
The most successful Russian racer for years stepped into the Sochi Autodrom on cloud nine. The crowd cheered as local hero Kvyat shined once again in qualifying, putting the car 8th on the grid, where he would start alongside – yep, you guessed it – Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari.
The opening races of the season had already seen a battle brewing between Kvyat and Vettel. The pair had endured a falling out over a collision at China – a coming together which led Vettel to crash into his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen. Words were had.
However, the worst was yet to come. Kvyat and Vettel collided twice on the opening lap of the following race in Russia, leading the German to crash into the barrier and having to retire his car. The move did not go down well. A furious Vettel repeatedly swore over team radio before commandeering a marshal’s motorbike to make his return to the garage, where he confronted Red Bull team boss Christian Horner on the pit wall.
It was to be a pivotal moment.
The next race, Kvyat found himself turning out for the Toro Rosso team, swapping sides with teenager Max Verstappen, whose elevation to the senior Red Bull seat became the talk of town. It was a tough time for the Russian, who admitted that there was “no real explanation, to be honest.”
It was a bitter blow for the young Russian, and one which affected him deeply. For Kvyat, it was a story of true ‘Hero to Zero’. As for Verstappen, it was to be a move which catapulted him into the history books. He famously won the race in Spain to become the sport’s youngest ever race winner. All the while, a dejected Daniil was left wondering what went wrong.
As Max set the sport alight, three retirements in the next four races saw things hit rock bottom for Kvyat – culminating in a frustrating performance at the German Grand Prix, which left the paddock reeling.
After the session, Daniil seemed a broken man, unable to work out what had gone wrong.
“It is what it is”, he said after the session. “I should be better than this. It’s not my real self who is driving the car. It is very painful. I think there is more work to be done than just a break. I don’t know what’s going on at the moment.”
Going into the summer break, many people were concerned about Kvyat. However, he was not to be deterred. He showed his character and battled through the tough times that would – give or take – continue until the end of the 2016 season.
Heading into the new year, Kvyat’s position was uncertain, yet the driver was determined to turn things around: “I’m still going up, and hopefully there will be a new level. The rollercoaster ride [of last year] definitely changed me. How? I couldn’t say. Because that’s what I never do: Go too deep.”
Reflective yet certainly more positive, the signs of a return to his old self were there.
And though his seat was linked to another Red Bull junior, Pierre Gasly, the team’s faith in Kvyat was eventually cemented when he was re-signed by Toro Rosso for the 2017 season.
Now, three races into the new season and heading into his home Grand Prix at the grand old age of 22 – Kvyat celebrated his 23rd birthday this week – the Russian is about to start his 61st race.
No doubt, there is plenty more to come. Dany has a steely determination about him, and the adversity of last season seems very much resigned to the history books.
In sport, going through a tough season can make you stronger on the other side. We have seen this with many great sportsmen and women. Going into the fourth race of the season, Daniil is confident that he can put a great weekend together in front of his home fans.
“I’ve had very good qualifying [at Sochi] but I’ve never actually been able to put the perfect race together in Russia, so I’d like to achieve it this year. It’s so cool to race here. I always feel the strong support of the Russian fans, and I want to make the most out of this backing and thank everyone with a strong performance.
“In 2015, I qualified in P5, which was my best qualifying result with Toro Rosso. It was quite a nice moment and I have very good memories from that day. The race wasn’t great but, the following year, the situation was the opposite, with not the strongest [qualifying] and a decent race. This time, I’m looking to be strong on both Saturday and Sunday!”
Having met him a number of times over the years, I can say that Daniil Kvyat is one of the sport’s good guys. And on the weekend of his Grand Prix, he deserves a successful race. Let’s hope it all comes together for him. I would love to see him achieve the sort of dream home race that so many within the sport – Mark Webber, Jenson Button & Daniel Ricciardo – have never been fortunate enough to have.