Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Daniil Kvyat on his rollercoaster ride with Red Bull, that seat swap, and a new chapter outside F1
Daniil Kvyat was thrust into the F1 spotlight as one of the promising youngsters Red Bull hoped would emulate Sebastian Vettel’s success, but while he made it to the senior team in rapid time, their notoriously ruthless decision-making saw him just as swiftly moved aside for Max Verstappen. In our latest Lights to Flag feature, the Russian reveals all from his two stints as a Grand Prix driver – and what he’s been up to since…
From Russia to Rome to Red Bull
Born in Ufa in 1994, Kvyat headed more than 1,000 kilometres west to Moscow when his family relocated at the turn of the millennium. It was in Russia’s capital city that the youngster saw go-karts pounding around a track for the first time – igniting his passion and triggering a move even further afield.
“I was attracted to cars from a very young age,” says Kvyat. “When I was nine, I was going back and forth from school in Moscow and I saw a karting centre. I really wanted to try it, so me and my father went there and it was very attractive straight away. I was up to speed quickly, fighting for lap times with the bigger guys.
“Some people noticed me and said, ‘Why don’t you try professional karting?’, so we did a test and it went very well. I started doing some local races, getting on the podium, winning a couple of times, but the level wasn’t very [high]. What was suggested, and what was clear, was that the best karting was in Europe, in Italy especially.
“We decided to move to Italy when I was 10 years old and it was a one-way ticket. I went to Rome and it’s like my home in a way. I finished my middle school there, my high school, and made a lot of friends. To this day, I’m racing with an Italian licence. It wasn’t easy, for sure, with a completely different culture, but I got integrated very well in the European racing system.”
Sainz of things to come
Competing all over Italy, Kvyat soon carved a reputation as one to watch. He won the KF3 Bridgestone Cup European Final, Silver Cup and Torneo Industrie titles in 2008 and followed it up with the KF3 South Garda Winter Cup and Trofeo Andrea Margutti crowns a year later, while also placing second in the WSK International Series and third in the CIK-FIA European Championship.
“That’s where I got Red Bull’s attention,” says Kvyat, who was then in his mid-teens. “I went to Varano in Italy for a test in a Formula BMW. It was with Carlos Sainz and a more experienced driver, Felipe Nasr, so there was a reference for us. [Red Bull advisor] Helmut Marko was very happy with the test and said, ‘If this is really your first time then it’s very good’.
“We signed the contract after that when me and my father came to the Grand Prix in Valencia. Helmut said, ‘Look, I appreciate your results, I’ve heard a lot of good things, here’s a contract, read it overnight and come back to me if you want to take it or leave it’. At that point, what do you do? You just accept whatever terms are there, as many years as there are, and you sign it.”
Red Bull placed Kvyat and Sainz in the same Formula BMW Europe team for 2010, along with a part-season in the Pacific spin-off series, and it was the Spaniard who initially made the stronger impression. That piled the pressure on Kvyat, who felt Marko’s wrath after only a handful of races.
“Especially at the beginning it was tough and I got a call from Helmut,” Kvyat remembers. “He was like, ‘You know what, if you don’t improve next race, I think we’re done here’, so I was like, ‘Wow, OK’. I was under a lot of pressure already. I had to go to Hockenheim and be ahead of Carlos, Helmut told me.
“I said, ‘OK, but please change the car to my liking’, because the set-up was the set-up and we just ran it. We did it and it worked very well, I remember I out-qualified Carlos and was ahead in the races. I think that’s what Helmut really liked about me, because he thought, ‘OK, if I can basically tell him he’s going to be fired and he can do this job, then it’s good’.”
Two Red Bull juniors, one Toro Rosso seat
Kvyat and Sainz remained joined at the hip as they progressed to the next rung of the motorsport ladder in 2011. It was Sainz who again edged the Red Bull junior battle, finishing second to Kvyat’s third in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and beating his team mate to the Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup title.
For 2012, the pair went in different directions. While Sainz took on an array of Formula 3 championships and had to settle for sporadic wins, Kvyat racked up trophies in Formula Renault 2.0, claiming the Alps title and finishing a close second to Stoffel Vandoorne in the Eurocup standings – an alternate tyre strategy in the wet/dry finale having backfired.
One year later, Red Bull brought Kvyat and Sainz back together to tackle GP3, which featured on the F1 support bill, and the importance of one driver finishing ahead of the other reached an entirely new level – Marko dangling the carrot of a Toro Rosso seat before them.
“Today me and Carlos are really good friends, but when we were team mates there were some heated moments,” says Kvyat. “We travelled a lot together, we had some contact on the track, and sometimes even our fathers had to intervene and say, ‘Hey, guys, calm down!’
Especially at the beginning it was tough and I got a call from Helmut. He was like, ‘You know what, if you don’t improve next race, I think we’re done here’
“During the GP3 season, Helmut told us, ‘OK, an F1 seat is on the table, so whoever does best will probably get it’, and that’s when it started to be very serious. I remember the round in Belgium, where we started first and second, almost tied on points, and I had to get that win. I won it, Carlos had a crash and I got a big lead in the points.
“There was another European F3 championship at the time, with a bit of a different car. Helmut wanted me to also do some races in that series, to do well in both cars, and I started winning there as well. I remember a race at the Red Bull Ring and it was close to Helmut, so he came to say hi, and I did three pole positions out of three, so that was a very important step.
“Then Carlos felt it and he said he’d do the World Series by Renault, just to show Helmut that he could do well in both cars, only that in his case it wasn’t going as well. So, more things were in my favour, I won the GP3 title and I was offered the Toro Rosso contract for 2014 before the last race. It felt like a huge achievement at the time, putting my signature on it.”
Kvyat’s F1 adventure begins
And so the whirlwind continued for Kvyat, who was still a teenager when he made his F1 debut (19 years, 10 months and 18 days) and remains ninth in the all-time list of youngest drivers. While many would be daunted by the prospect, the Red Bull school of preparation – and pressure – meant the rookie treated it like one more box to tick.
“You know, I’ve been so used to being thrown in the deep waters by Helmut through my junior career that I was like, ‘Whatever, it’s just the next step’,” Kvyat comments. “Everything was going so fast in my life at that point that it was like, ‘We need to keep rolling, keep going’.
“It was a disaster era with the Renault engines, unfortunately. My first test of the season, I did zero laps, or five laps I think – out, in, out, in – then the engine was giving up and we couldn’t make it work. We did only a few laps in Bahrain as well, pre-season testing. I came to my first race with very few laps, but luckily I had done a couple of FP1 sessions the year before that.
“In Australia it was instinct driving and it brought me to Q3, it brought me my first points. I was fighting with Kimi Raikkonen in that race and I was like, ‘Wow, this feels unreal’. I started my career when I was 10 years old and Kimi was winning races with McLaren, then I’m fighting with him in my first race, so that was quite cool!”
Despite having to work around those aforementioned car gremlins, Kvyat’s strong start continued as he out-qualified team mate Jean-Eric Vergne – who had been racing for Toro Rosso since 2012 – in only his third Grand Prix and scored points in two more of the opening four races.
While Vergne would take the standout results as the season wore on, Kvyat continued to adapt to F1 quickly, topping up his points tally on two more occasions and comparing well to the more experienced pair of hands on the other side of the garage.
An unexpected Red Bull promotion
Then, ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix weekend, long-time Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel dropped the bombshell that he would be heading to Ferrari for the 2015 season – suddenly opening up a seat at the senior outfit.
“I had an experienced team mate and they were obviously comparing me to him, not in the points standings, but corner by corner in the data, old tyres, new tyres – that’s what they were looking at,” Kvyat explains. “When Sebastian was leaving Red Bull, they had to have someone ready, and everything was going very fast at the time.
“At Suzuka, I came to the track in the morning and [Toro Rosso team boss] Franz Tost said, ‘Ah, so you’re driving for Red Bull next year’, and I was like, ‘What?’. He said, ‘Go and see Helmut’, so I went there, saw [Red Bull team boss] Christian Horner and Helmut, they said, ‘Have a coffee with us’, and then they told me, ‘Hey, you’re driving for us next year’. I was like, ‘Wow’. It was an emotional day!”
Just 19 races into his F1 career, Kvyat found himself at a front-running team who had recently won a handful of world titles and were still winning races with Daniel Ricciardo, despite their struggles to adapt to the turbo-hybrid regulations that Mercedes had mastered.
Although Red Bull’s 2015 car – largely due to the Renault engine within it – remained a step behind the best, the jump from Toro Rosso was one Kvyat immediately noticed as he toured the vast Milton Keynes factory and prepared for the next phase of his F1 journey.
“For drivers, for engineers, for mechanics, for PR people, for everyone it’s another step forward – I could really feel that,” he says. “At that time maybe I wasn’t paying attention to it because you don’t really want to, you want to just get on with your job, you can’t stop and think too much. But now, looking back, it’s a different environment, also with more tools to succeed.
“Unfortunately, it was one of those years. In 2014 they won a few races, but their problems with the engine continued in 2015, with less performance, less reliability. I was just starting my pre-season thinking, ‘Ah, it’s going to be difficult’. I remember even Toro Rosso was performing better than us at the time and I thought, ‘What a timing’.”
Getting the better of Ricciardo
Nonetheless, Kvyat was determined to make the most of the opportunity and, after an unfortunate car failure en route to the grid for his first race in Red Bull colours (which denied a young Oscar Piastri the full ‘Grid Kid’ experience), he set about taking the fight to new team mate Ricciardo, who already had several F1 wins under his belt.
It was a goal Kvyat confidently accomplished as he scored points in 14 of the 16 races he finished, including a fine run to second at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and held the edge in the drivers’ standings at the end of the season – something that attracted attention from elsewhere.
“Back then, it was just a lot of flow, getting in the car and driving,” Kvyat recalls. “At that time, Daniel was at the peak of his performance, I think. The car was also suited him and I had to work around a few issues, but still it was a strong season and it was a good performance, so I was quite satisfied with it.
“The winter was a bit strange because I was approached by Ferrari, by [team boss] Maurizio Arrivabene. They were like, ‘We want you to drive for us’, and we started talking a bit more and more. At the end it was clear it wasn’t [going to work] because my ties to Red Bull were quite strong. We carried on into 2016, there were improvements that year from the car, but not when I was there at the beginning.
“Then, of course, the famous change of teams…”
The tables turn for Kvyat
Indeed, Kvyat was just four races into his second season with Red Bull when Marko and company made the cold-blooded call to send him back to Toro Rosso in a straight seat swap with Max Verstappen.
A few factors had combined to seal his fate: firstly, Ricciardo’s strong early-season qualifying pace and consistent points-scoring; secondly, Kvyat’s up-and-down form that brought the high of a podium in China but the crushing low of twice running into the back of Vettel on home soil in Sochi; and thirdly, Verstappen’s own meteoric rise.
While understandably gutted at the decision, which he was ironically informed of while watching Game of Thrones, Kvyat got the impression that “there was something going on” and Marko had “wanted to change drivers” before he even hit the track in 2016.
“Helmut was like, ‘We need you to beat Daniel consistently every race, more or less’,” Kvyat says. “I was like, ‘OK, let’s see, he’s not an idiot, but I’ll do my best like he will’. The first few races were tricky but there were clear improvements, like in China, then there was Sochi and obviously they needed this, so that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Just like that, Kvyat was back to where his F1 career had started, reuniting with a fired up Sainz who had recently arrived on the grid.
Swapping Red Bull for Ferrari
“It started to be difficult times because my motivation was quite low to go back to Toro Rosso, another car that was a different philosophy,” Kvyat continues. “Carlos was very hungry and confident with that car, and me, on the other hand, not hungry, not confident. There’s nothing [you can] do against a hungry Carlos with that mental approach.
“There were flashes of decent races, but it wasn’t the best season. In 2017 it was a slightly better approach, but still not quite there, and I think we were just growing apart with Red Bull – it was clear that we needed a break. So, 2018 was the year of the break and I became the Ferrari reserve and test driver. It was good there. I needed it just to eat, train and sleep, honestly.”
Kvyat’s running for the Scuderia would give him more than emotional satisfaction, with the eyes and ears of the paddock picking up on what he was doing in the real world and virtual cockpits – including the Red Bull chiefs who had demoted him to Toro Rosso then dropped him for another newcomer in Pierre Gasly.
“My lap times were very competitive,” he shares. “You know, rumours go very fast in F1. I went to Montreal with Ferrari and I saw Christian and Helmut just to say hi and drink a coffee with them. They were very happy to see me and we had a good chat. At one point they said, ‘We heard your test went very well’, and I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I didn’t know you knew about it!’, but we kept in touch.
“I later gave Helmut a call, not out of desperation, but I needed to get back to F1. I said, ‘I’m ready to race, I think I would be a great asset for you now’, and he goes, ‘OK, everything is closed, but I’ll let you know if something changes’. Three days after, I think, Daniel decided to go to Renault. Helmut called me and said, ‘What a timing, are you still interested?’ We shook hands and that was my way back in.”
Kvyat jumps at his second chance
Kvyat enjoyed a points-filled return with Toro Rosso in 2019 and managed to give the team their second-ever podium finish at a rain-hit German Grand Prix, behind the driver he had replaced at Red Bull in Vettel and the driver who had replaced him at Red Bull in Verstappen.
With Gasly struggling to make things work after his promotion to Red Bull, which included the Frenchman crashing out of the aforementioned Hockenheim race, speculation was building that Kvyat could make a shock return to the main team, but the stars did not quite align.
“There were again a lot of rumours and talking behind the doors about me going back to Red Bull, and I would have really wanted that, of course,” Kvyat makes clear. “But there was other interest, other games going on behind and they needed to put my team mate Alex Albon in Gasly’s car at that time, so that’s the way it went.
“Then, after the Covid season in 2020, Toro Rosso had to put another driver in the junior team and I was not a junior anymore, simple as that. I think my performances in my last races were strong, so it was definitely good enough to carry on in F1, but sometimes there’s just not enough seats, and some seats are booked for different reasons.”
Kvyat took on another reserve role at Alpine for 2021, but with no chance of a third full-time F1 spell in 2022, he and his management decided to look elsewhere – prompting some time in America and most recently the LMP2 class of the World Endurance Championship.
The easiest thing for me is to jump back in an F1 car and take it to the limit again. I mean now, if I had to ever come back to F1, it’s more like a Hollywood or Netflix scenario! But why not?
Moving outside of the F1 bubble
“All the F1 teams were quite stable at the time with their drivers, so it was tricky,” he says. “When you lose a year, it’s a little bit more difficult to come back. I drove a few races in NASCAR and I liked it a lot. You really have to start from zero there, which I don’t mind. There was no b******t, pretty much, and the racing was wild!
“Now, in the WEC, it’s a good schedule. It’s a different kind of racing, which also takes time to get used to, to adapt and learn a few tricks here and there. I like driving different cars because it helps to adapt to different things, and I think now I’m a more adaptable driver. As a driver that’s what I’m looking for – constant progress.”
Still only 29, Kvyat is now focused on “finding a stable place where I have time to evolve”, which looks set to be the WEC, having signed to race in the hypercar class with Lamborghini in 2024 and bid for glory in legendary endurance races such as Le Mans.
F1, though, will always be on his radar.
“I keep in touch with Helmut from time to time,” he says. “I also recently spoke with Franz and I’ll try to go skiing with him now that he’s retiring. But I’ll always keep an eye on F1. In the end, whatever I drive, you can see that there’s a bit of an F1 style. The easiest thing for me is to jump back in an F1 car and take it to the limit again. I mean now, if I had to ever come back to F1, it’s more like a Hollywood or Netflix scenario! But why not?”