The Formula 1 circus could be coming to a town near you soon, that is, if it isn’t already. Despite failed expeditions to India, Korea and Valencia in Spain, the sport just keeps going global.
The latest additions to the set list? Azerbaijan and Mexico. Two countries with contrasting reputations in motorsport, and they have subsequently met very different responses from the F1 community following their confirmation over the past three days.
The Mexican Grand Prix is an event that will be welcomed back with open arms next November, most probably going back-to-back with the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. The race was last held back in 1992 at Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – named after legendary drivers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez – but was dropped for 1993.
Like we’ve seen in the United States, Formula 1 has enjoyed a revival in Mexico over the past few years. Much of this has been down to the success of Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez, who currently race for Force India and Sauber. Unsurprisingly, they were pretty pleased with the news when speaking to the press earlier this week, with Gutierrez calling it a “dream come true”. Many of the team principals in F1 are also pleased with the news.
“It’s great to be going back to Mexico,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “Certainly my memories of Mexico were Nigel Mansell’s move on the outside of Gerhard Berger into the last turn; I just hope that corner is left intact. I think it’s fantastic for Formula 1 to be going back to Mexico.”
“The more the Formula 1 canvas expands across the world, the better it is for the sport and the teams and the sponsors,” Force India owner Vijay Mallya explained. “As far as new countries are concerned, like Mexico and Azerbaijan, fantastic news.”
Azerbaijan is more of a puzzler, given that it is a nation with very little motorsport heritage. The Grand Prix of Europe will be hosted in the capital, Baku, at a street circuit around the city, but this will not be its first major racing event. In fact, the city has hosted the Baku World Challenge, an event for GT cars, in 2012 and 2013. However, this is still very new territory for Formula 1.
If there isn’t a great legacy for racing there, why not create one? “If there’s no history of motorsport in Azerbaijan, one can always hope to create interest in Formula 1 with its attendant benefits,” Mallya said.
So we’re off to Baku in 2016, but might not be going to Monza the year after? Is it really right for the sport to be cutting classic circuits in favor of new venues?
“I think it’s all about balance,” Horner explained. “It’s about keeping the historical events and also bringing new events. I think Formula 1 has done a good job of that over the past few years. If there isn’t any interest in Formula 1, like we saw last weekend [in Germany], then why not go to a new market that is crying out for Formula 1?”
Is Azerbaijan really crying out for Formula 1, though? Hockenheim was slated last weekend for only bringing 52,000 fans through its gates for the German Grand Prix, but would Baku better that figure?
Some new races have unquestionably been a huge success, with Singapore being the best example. Baku seems a little more obscure and uncertain, though. Similar words of gold were spouted about the races in India (2011-2013) and Korea (2010-2013), which have since dropped off the calendar. The marketing and organization for the Baku race must learn from past mistakes.
There is a great focus in F1 at the moment about ‘fan engagement’, and how it can be achieved. There is a very simple trade-off: fan engagement versus profits. Want to fill the grandstands? Make the tickets cheap, but you’ll lose revenue.
There are some venues that are affected less than others. As Christian Horner pointed out, the three races before Germany – Canada, Austria, Great Britain – were all sell-outs and huge successes. It is likely that Mexico would join this group. For a show-run in Mexico City a few years ago, 200,000 fans turned out. It is this kind of market that F1 is right to be targeting.
As things stand for 2015, we’ll have a twenty race calendar featuring the existing nineteen plus Mexico. For 2016, the figure may rise to 21, or even 22 if New Jersey can get its act together. Some races may drop off the schedule, too. There is indeed a very fine balance between the old circuits and the new.
As the Austrian Grand Prix proved, it is sometimes possible to revisit old ideas to make progress. Mexico is another example of this, and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to play host to a great event next year. Baku will most probably fall into the same category as the other new-fangled races – Abu Dhabi, China, Bahrain, Singapore – that lack the charm and appeal of others, but instead revolve around lavish settings and facilities.
Azerbaijan may sound like an odd place to go to now, but so did Abu Dhabi; so did Singapore; so did Bahrain. Baku could yet prove to be a hit in Formula 1, but if it does indeed come at the cost of a legendary event such as the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, it would only be to the detriment of the sport.
After claiming an impressive victory in its debut FIA World Endurance Championship race at Silverstone three weeks ago, the RGR Sport by Morand team heads to this weekend’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with high hopes of a repeat result.
RGR Sport by Morand became the first Mexican team to enter the WEC earlier this year when it entered the LMP2 class, signing ex-Formula 1 driver Bruno Senna and former Audi racer Filipe Albuquerque to race alongside team owner Ricardo Gonzalez.
The iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps plays host to its annual six-hour race this Saturday, and with the addition of the no. 38 G-Drive entry, the LMP2 class is now up to 12 cars, the biggest on the grid.
However, Gonzalez is unconcerned, instead relishing the challenge of racing at such a famous circuit as he bids to make it two wins from two races.
“Spa has always been one of my favorite tracks so to go there with our own team is going to be great,” Gonzalez said.
“We’re coming in off a win and as the championship leaders so it’s important to carry the momentum forward.
“The team has done a lot of work back at the shop to give us an even better car for Spa, so there’s no reason why we can’t go out and fight for another win.”
Senna hopes to follow in the footsteps of his uncle this weekend by claiming a first win at Spa. Ayrton Senna won the Belgian Grand Prix five times in F1, including four-in-a-row for McLaren between 1988 and 1991.
“After great success during the team’s first race at the 6 Hours of Silverstone, I’m looking even more forward to racing with Ricardo and Filipe and the RGR Sport by Morand team,” Senna said.
“Nothing has changed in terms of our approach for this weekend in Spa, but efforts have not been spared since Silverstone and lots of analysis and developments are ongoing to make sure we keep improving and get more competitive as the championship progresses.
“Spa is one of my favorite tracks and I’ve qualified on pole and front-row there many times, but I’m still yet to win it. Will push very hard for it!”
The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps takes place on Saturday May 7.
But, even though he’s only 22 years old and now thrust into a second major transition in his two-plus year Formula 1 career, Kvyat has been given something most Red Bull junior drivers haven’t: a second chance.
Toro Rosso, nee Minardi, has been on the grid 10 years now since debuting in 2006.
In pop culture terms, Toro Rosso is basically the F1 equivalent of Erlich Bachman’s incubator if you watch the HBO series “Silicon Valley.”
At Toro Rosso, one of two things happen: you either move up to Red Bull, or you don’t, and you almost never return to F1 again.
And that’s where Kvyat has a rare chance as the first driver to get a race seat reprieve since Vitantonio Liuzzi, and, if his head can be right, a shot at motivation.
Let’s take a look first at Toro Rosso’s driver lineups to date, and their post-Toro Rosso careers:
Scott Speed (2006-mid-2007); no further F1 starts after Toro Rosso; now, 2015 Red Bull GRC champion
Vitantonio Liuzzi (2006-2007); 41 further F1 starts after Toro Rosso from 2009-2011 with Force India, HRT
Sebastian Vettel (Mid-2007-2008); promoted to Red Bull; 4-time World Champion… things worked out fine
Sebastien Bourdais (2008-mid-2009); no further F1 starts after Toro Rosso; back in IndyCar since 2011
Jaime Alguersuari (Mid-2009-2011); no further F1 starts after Toro Rosso; some FIA Formula E, now retired
Sebastien Buemi (2009-2011); no further F1 starts after Toro Rosso; 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship World Champion with Toyota; also regular race winner in Formula E
Daniel Ricciardo (2012-2013); promoted to Red Bull; 3-time Grand Prix winner
Jean-Eric Vergne (2012-2014); no further F1 starts after Toro Rosso; Ferrari test driver and Formula E driver
Daniil Kvyat (2014, mid-2016-present); promoted to Red Bull, now, sent back to Toro Rosso
Max Verstappen (2015-mid-2016); promoted to Red Bull
Carlos Sainz Jr. (2015-present); future TBD beyond Toro Rosso career
So there you have it: 11 drivers in Toro Rosso’s history, none lasting longer than three years, four promoted to Red Bull, and only one – Liuzzi, in 2009 – ever returning to the grid after their post-Toro Rosso career ended.
Note, I’m not including Christian Klien here – the Austrian graduated into F1 with Jaguar in 2004 before Red Bull launched in 2005 – he never drove for Toro Rosso. Liuzzi, additionally, drove a handful of Grands Prix for Red Bull in 2005 but was never in with a shout at returning once Red Bull kept Klien alongside David Coulthard for 2006.
And that’s before you get to the countless others who Red Bull had in their “incubator” at one point or another, but never had a sniff of F1.
That includes the likes of Antonio Felix da Costa, Robert Wickens, Brendon Hartley, Neel Jani, Filipe Albuquerque, Alex Lynn, Daniel Juncadella among others (a more exhaustive list is found here).
Toro Rosso differs from its predecessor in obvious reasons. Many of the 37 drivers in Minardi’s history used the venerable Italian team as a springboard to move higher up the grid – you got your start at Minardi, you went forward from there, and you remained grateful to Faenza for giving you that first chance.
Toro Rosso? It’s a case of go big, or go home. Red Bull makes no apologies for how cutthroat its way of finding talent is, but it is interesting to note that with such short lifespans, it doesn’t give its own talent enough time to find itself before tossing them out for whomever the next flavor of the month driver may be.
That’s evident when you look around the world and see the number of ex-Red Bull folk who’ve gone on to greater things and championships in other disciplines, notably in sports car racing.
Say in a hypothetical situation that Romain Grosjean was under the Red Bull umbrella for his formative years, when he struggled in a part-time fill-in role in 2009, then drew ire from Mark Webber in 2012 with Webber’s infamous “first-lap nutcase” branding of the Franco Swiss driver. What would have happened to Grosjean’s career had he been tossed aside after a year or at most, two?
This is the precipice at which Kvyat now stands. Lewis Hamilton made the comment after Sochi that he has 17 races left, and 17 races to give Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg hell.
The same is true for Kvyat, who while offered a rare shot to continue having been the first Toro Rosso graduate to fail at Red Bull, likely only has one season left to save his F1 career… which again, seems really weird to type considering he’s only 22 years old.
But if he thrives in the now-lesser expectations bestowed on him at Toro Rosso, there could be landing places for him in 2017. It’s up to him now to seize this second chance.
Yet none of this was totally unexpected. If anything, Verstappen replacing Kvyat was an inevitability. It’s simply the timing that has been so surprising.
Ever since making his F1 debut with Toro Rosso at the age of 17 last year, Verstappen has been living up to the considerable hype bestowed on him.
He finished 2015 as F1’s top rookie, easily outscoring teammate Carlos Sainz Jr., and narrowly missing out on his first breakthrough podium in both Hungary and Austin. He has long been tipped as F1’s next megastar; the man who can mount a serious challenge to the records set by Michael Schumacher, statistically the greatest driver the sport has known.
Red Bull knew all of this when it signed him to its young driver program midway through 2014. Verstappen had caught the eye of many during his early single seater days and karting career, leaving him at a juncture where two options lay before him: Mercedes or Red Bull.
Behind Max is his father, Jos, himself an F1 driver in the 1990s and early 2000s. Jos, of course, was a young talent thrust into the limelight early – coincidentally as Schumacher’s teammate at Benetton in 1994 – although he failed to deliver on the promise he showed. He has been the driving force behind his son’s career, giving him the support and guidance required to shape him into an F1 driver.
Max’s management were adamant when negotiating with Mercedes and Red Bull that it was F1 or nothing for 2015. Mercedes was unable to meet this, instead preferring him to work his way up the junior ranks. Red Bull, by virtue of its junior Toro Rosso team, could do so. And so followed his surprise appointment at the age of just 16 years old.
The concern was that Verstappen would sink, not swim, when thrown into motorsport’s top echelon. His inexperience has shown at times through a short temper, seen most clearly at this year’s season opener in Australia when he spun while trying to pass teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. for position. Otherwise though, he has been a revelation. Verstappen is brave and exciting to watch, showing a maturity behind the wheel that far exceeds his relative youth.
This is why Red Bull has taken the opportunity to push him up into its senior F1 team at the earliest possible moment. Verstappen is good enough to cut it at the top level, and it wants to give him the best possible tools with which to do so. Naturally, Red Bull is a better bet than Toro Rosso, particularly now that the Renault… er, TAG Heuer engine is up to scratch once again.
Yet you cannot help but feel for Kvyat.
HAS DANY DONE ENOUGH?
Kvyat’s F1 career hasn’t been spectacular, but it hasn’t been an abject failure. It’s been good. Solid. Fair. Pick your moderately positive adjective of preference here.
The Russian got his break thanks to a particularly impressive charge to the GP3 title back in 2013. It was enough to convince Red Bull that he should replace Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso when he moved up to its senior team in place of the retiring Mark Webber. Antonio Felix da Costa was tipped to be Red Bull’s next big star, yet his failure to dominate either GP3 or Formula Renault 3.5 gave Kvyat an opening. He grabbed it with both hands.
Kvyat’s first season in F1 with Toro Rosso was, again, solid if unspectacular. He got to grips with the car quickly and was a good match for teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, but did not blow the doors off the Frenchman as Vettel had with Vitantonio Liuzzi in his early Red Bull days, nor did he enjoy the edge Ricciardo had over Vergne.
And yet he soon found himself being announced as Vettel’s replacement. He was given four-time World Champion-sized shoes to fill. But the appointment was more by coincidence than anything.
Vettel was never supposed to leave Red Bull in 2014. The team expected him to continue with Ricciardo as a teammate into 2015, and had already announced that Verstappen would race alongside Kvyat at Toro Rosso, leaving Vergne without a seat. For the future, the likes of Alex Lynn and Pierre Gasly were waiting in the wings, but their chances would come at a later date.
Vettel’s decision to walk away from Red Bull was not an easy one. However, after a tough year and with Ferrari looking to oust Fernando Alonso, an opportunity arose for him. He reportedly broke down in tears when he informed Red Bull team principal Christian Horner of his decision to leave ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix weekend, yet Red Bull was ready. A statement soon followed confirming that Kvyat would be replacing him.
Had Red Bull not already sacked Vergne, there’s a chance he may have been given the nod to replace Vettel. After all, he had more experience in F1 and had worked extensively with Ricciardo in the past. Yet Red Bull could not be seen to backtrack on the decision made. If JEV wasn’t good enough for Toro Rosso, he wouldn’t be good enough for Red Bull.
So Kvyat’s arrival was one of surprise. He certainly didn’t disgrace himself during his first year with Red Bull though, beating Ricciardo in the final standings. However, he lacked the pace his teammate showed in both qualifying and the race, and crucial errors in Austin and Japan raised question marks. They were errors Red Bull did not want to see its drivers making.
Since the beginning of the season, there has been an air of skepticism about Kvyat’s future with Red Bull due to the immense talent that Verstappen boasts. He struggled to match Ricciardo’s pace in Australia or Bahrain, and despite finishing third in China, he was just six seconds ahead of his teammate who had suffered a puncture, been caught out by the safety car and dropped to the back of the pack. The pace difference was noticeable.
And then came Russia.
THE TURNING POINT
Kvyat arrived in Sochi for his home grand prix as the poster boy for the event. A grandstand at the Sochi Autodrom bears his name and is emblazoned with a giant picture of him on the side. With president Vladimir Putin also in attendance and F1 growing at a rapid rate in Russia, it was a big weekend for Kvyat.
Qualifying proved to be a tight affair, with a last-ditch lap in Q2 getting him into the top 10. He was once again unable to match the pace of Ricciardo though, falling three-tenths of a second back to start the race eighth.
Keen to make an impression, Kvyat went out with all guns blazing at the start. He had done the same in China to maximum effect, irking Vettel in the process who called the Russian a “torpedo.”
The two would come to blows once again, although this time around, Vettel’s language was far less savory.
While trying to make up for his poor qualifying result, Kvyat tried to get on the brakes as late as possible on the run into Turn 2. However, all he did was slam into the rear of Vettel’s car, leaving the Ferrari driver with damage. Ricciardo was also caught in the melee, although he had also been clipped by Sergio Perez in the opening stages.
Vettel and Kvyat continued into the long left-hander at Turn 3, the former hobbling after the hit. His car slowed midway through the corner, leaving Kvyat to slam into his rear and punt him into the wall. Vettel was furious. Ricciardo was furious. Red Bull team advisor Helmut Marko was furious. Team boss Christian Horner was furious.
Kvyat, though, was relatively unapologetic.
“Probably the whole paddock wants an apology from me, but we’ll speak inside the team after analyzing,” he told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the media bullpen.
“It’s easy to attack now. Go on, attack me, no problem.”
An inquest would inevitably follow, but few thought it would take the form that it has and result in Verstappen and Kvyat swapping seats for Spain.
A GOOD EXCUSE
Red Bull has needed an excuse to get rid of one of its drivers to make room for Verstappen. With Ricciardo provisionally pinned down for 2017 and continuing to lead its charge though, the man to make way was only ever going to be Kvyat.
The Russian’s antics in Sochi have proven to be the catalyst for change. Just three weeks after hitting the podium in China, he is being sent back to the training ground to prove himself, while Verstappen – a man with far less experience – has the opportunity to prove himself in a top level team.
Much of this is driven by Red Bull’s desire to fend off any interest from rival teams – namely Mercedes and Ferrari. Verstappen signed a two-year deal with Toro Rosso from 2015, but even in the early stages of the contract, Jos and his other manager were keen to break him out of that and give him more flexibility.
By pushing Verstappen into the senior team, Red Bull will have likely ended all chances of him leaving at the end of the year. It is a huge change to have made, but Kvyat’s actions proved to be a good excuse to switch things up and give Verstappen the guarantees desired.
From here, there are a number of big questions that need to be answered. Firstly, where does Kvyat go from here? Even if he impresses back at Toro Rosso with a team he knows well and in an environment where the pressure to succeed is eased, there is no way back for him at Red Bull. That line-up is firmly set with Ricciardo and Verstappen for the foreseeable future.
Secondly, can Verstappen cut it with Red Bull? Most probably, the answer will be yes. Just how he stacks up against Ricciardo will be fascinating to see, but all of the signs from his fledgling career thus far suggest he will take to Red Bull like a duck to water.
How the future pans out for Toro Rosso will also be interesting. Sainz is now in a position where, despite doing a very good job with Toro Rosso, he doesn’t really have much of a chance of moving up to Red Bull unless Ricciardo were to move away. He’ll likely be joined by Gasly for 2017 after the Frenchman spends a second year racing in GP2.
As for Red Bull? As this affair has done is reinforce its reputation for being ruthless when it comes to dealing with its drivers. Kvyat has been hard done by, but he was racing on borrowed time regardless. Should Verstappen excel, it will look like a masterstroke.
Regardless, there is an awful lot riding on the rest of the season for Red Bull, Verstappen and Kvyat.