With the announcement made a week before the Spanish Grand Prix that Red Bull Racing would swap current driver Daniil Kvyat with Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen, the Formula 1 community was divided with opinions on the switch.
Many believed, and still do, that Verstappen is too young to be racing in a top team and is still yet to cut his teeth in single-seaters, having only done the one year in Formula Three in 2014 when he was signed to the Red Bull junior team after he tested and impressed in a Renault Formula 3.5 car.
Verstappen impressed so much that it only took six days for Dr. Helmut Marko to give him a seat in Red Bull’s junior Formula 1 team Toro Rosso, alongside fellow Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz Jr.
The hastiness Marko showed in signing Verstappen was to ward off rival team’s interest in Verstappen, and with a Formula 1 seat to offer, the deal was too good to turn down for the then 16-year-old.
In his debut season, Verstappen’s best finish was fourth twice at the Hungarian Grand Prix and the United States Grand Prix, silencing doubters en-route to finishing 12th in the championship. He also finished 31 points ahead of his teammate Sainz, who, in fairness, had a poor run of mechanical failures during the season.
The writing on the wall became clear for current Red Bull Racing drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, as it was obvious Red Bull were keen on getting Verstappen a seat in their top team as soon as they could.
Unfortunately for Kvyat, his reckless opening lap at the Russian Grand Prix gave Red Bull the perfect excuse to shift him back to Toro Rosso so they could promote Verstappen to the senior team, again warding off offers from rival teams.
Cue controversy, as again Verstappen’s age was brought into question and whether he was ready to race in a senior Formula 1 team at age 18, let alone step into a car which he’s had no experience in and be expected to perform instantly.
To the teenager’s credit, he did just that. In the first practice session of the weekend Verstappen finished sixth, just over a tenth of a second behind Ricciardo in fifth. He continued his pace in the second practice session finishing under two-tenths of a second to Ricciardo in eighth.
The following day, Verstappen upped the ante by beating Ricciardo’s time in the final practice session by a tenth of a second as the pair finished in fourth and fifth position respectively. The result set up a fascinating qualifying battle between the pair that didn’t disappoint.
Verstappen took an early lead by ending Q1 0.171 seconds faster than Ricciardo, and again topped the Australian in Q2 by an impressive 0.407 seconds.
But it was Ricciardo who pulled out a magic lap out of the bag to qualify in third position, four-tenths of a second faster than Verstappen in fourth. By qualifying fourth, Verstappen already equalled Kvyat’s best qualifying performance which justified his promotion.
Kvyat on the other hand, has struggled to reintegrate himself with Toro Rosso as he was regularly off the pace from his teammate Sainz. The Russian was only able to qualify 13th on the grid behind McLaren’s Jenson Button, while Sainz made it to Q3 and will line up in eighth position.
While neither has yet to compete in a race since the switch, by pure performance and handling of an unusual situation complied with the very cut-throat nature of Red Bull, validates the team’s harsh decision.