LONDON (Reuters) - Max Verstappen’s sudden promotion to Red Bull will be considered as a slap in the face for Daniil Kvyat, the man he replaces, but it has more to do with the Dutch driver’s potential than the Russian’s failings.
Verstappen, 18, caused a sensation when he came into Formula One with Toro Rosso last season -- after being signed as a 16-year-old -- and is now considered a future champion.
At last year’s International Automobile Federation (FIA) gala prize giving he won awards for rookie, personality and action of the year.
Such talent does not go unnoticed by rivals and Verstappen had been already linked to Toro Rosso’s engine partners Ferrari who have Kimi Raikkonen, 37 in October, out of contract at the end of the year.
The word on the paddock grapevine was that Verstappen would be free to go elsewhere if Red Bull did not give him a race seat at the main team for the third year of his current contract.
“I know what contract I have. I am very positive also for next year,” the teenager told Reuters in March.
“I am very happy with Red Bull, I know what the perspective is for next year and the years after,” he added. “Happy to be at Toro Rosso for the moment and to learn more. Then we’ll see next year where we are.”
Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, who won four successive world championships with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 and is now at Ferrari, made his debut for BMW-Sauber as a stand-in at the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix.
Red Bull, who had Vettel under contract as a junior driver, promptly drafted him in to the Toro Rosso race lineup to make sure he stayed in the fold.
By moving Verstappen up now, after just four races, Red Bull can measure him against Daniel Ricciardo before making a firm decision on 2017.
They can also get the teen fully acclimatized before getting an upgraded Renault engine in Canada next month that should make them more competitive.
Kvyat made his debut with Toro Rosso in 2014 and graduated to Red Bull after just one season, almost by default, when Vettel announced he was leaving.
The Russian, 22, has plenty of admirers for his race craft and attitude but has struggled to rise to the challenge. He qualified 18th in Australia this year, and did not start, and was 15th on the grid in Bahrain.
While he was third in China last month, and was named Driver of the Day, he clashed with Vettel with the German accusing him of launching himself like a Torpedo and driving like a madman.
In Sochi, his home race, he collided with Vettel twice on the opening lap in a collision that also involved Red Bull team mate Ricciardo.
“Sochi was obviously the final catalyst to changing Kvyat for Verstappen in a bigger picture,” said former racer and TV commentator Martin Brundle on Twitter. “Future contract for MV, takes tension out of MV v (Carlos) Sainz.”
The late McLaren principal Teddy Mayer once said “drivers are just interchangeable light bulbs, you plug them in and they do the job” but even in a sport with so little sentiment Kvyat’s demotion came as a shock.
“Really? one bad race and Kyvat’s dropped, what about the podium in the previous race? #Shortmemories,” commented McLaren’s Jenson Button on Twitter.
Red Bull have shown a ruthless streak in the past, with a succession of drivers discarded, but Kvyat has at least been handed a second chance to regain some confidence at Toro Rosso. He will still have to prove himself, however.
“We basically have long-term contracts at the Red Bull junior program and the whole program is based on performance,” Red Bull’s motorsport consultant Helmut Marko warned in March.
“Be very clear: the one who is not delivering goes.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar