Russia is a country on the rise in global sports. The country is currently hosting the Winter Olympics and venues such as the Bolshoy Ice Dome will become the backdrop to a street circuit in October, when Formula 1, GP2 and GP3 arrive at Sochi. The country will also host the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Russia’s association with Formula 1 has got off to stuttering start. A Russian businessman briefly owned Jordan, which was renamed as Midland to match his business interests. The team lasted less than a year before being sold to Dutch company Spyker. Russia does of course technically have a team competing in the sport courtesy of Marussia. But while the team is owned by Russian sportscar makers Marussia Motors, they operate out of an industrial unit in Banbury under the Manor Motorsports banner.
Only a handful of Russians have ever driven a Formula 1 car – one of them being President Vladimir Putin – while only one has raced in the sport. Vitaly Petrov made his debut for Renault in 2010 having finished as runner-up to Nico Hülkenberg in the 2009 GP2 Series. Petrov showed flashes of speed but his performances were frequently marred by visits to gravel traps and barriers. Despite scoring a podium at the start of 2011, the Renault R31’s front-facing exhausts caused development problems for the team and their relationship with Petrov subsequently deteriorated. He found refuge at Caterham for 2012 but dropped off the grid in 2013. Russia’s TV figures declined by 13% in 2012; no doubt they declined further so in 2013 (figures for Russia have not been released).
Petrov was one of several drivers linked to a Formula 1 seat for 2014, while Sergey Sirotkin joined Sauber and will act as their reserve driver this year. Alongside an assault on the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, Sirotkin might get a run out in tests and perhaps a practice session (although Giedo van der Garde is also on Sauber’s books). But a third name, and an unknown one to the blinkered, cropped up and swiftly joined the Formula 1 grid.
Daniil Kvyat is still only 19 years old but has the talent to see the Russian flag atop a Formula 1 podium. That remains a fanciful dream for now as Kvyat is a rookie in a lower-midfield team which struggled during the first test at Jerez. The next test in Bahrain will provide a greater idea of Toro Rosso’s situation, but in Kvyat they have a gem for the future.
Kvyat’s promotion to Toro Rosso caught many by surprise. Red Bull’s junior system operates on a very simple premise: deliver the goods, or think about doing something else. The man widely tipped to replace Daniel Ricciardo was Antonio Felix da Costa. The Portuguese racer enjoyed a prolific 2012 season but 2013 didn’t pan out as expected. He has talent, but he didn’t deliver to Red Bull’s standards in 2013 and will race in DTM this season. Part of it is timing. Had a Toro Rosso seat been vacant at the end of 2012, there’s no doubt that Da Costa would be plying his trade in Formula 1. But it wasn’t, and he isn’t. Kvyat delivered the goods 12 months later and a seat was available. But to think that Kvyat jumped the gun and relied solely on good fortune would be a discredit to the Russian’s talents.
Kvyat made a measured start to his single-seater career in 2010 but he stepped up a gear throughout 2011 and 2012, finishing as runner-up to now-McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne in the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup. In 2013, Kvyat joined GP3 with MW Arden and dovetailed these commitments with a guest role in the FIA’s European Formula 3 Championship. Kvyat had an auspicious start to his GP3 career but was languishing mid-table during the middle part of the season. He was, however, making strides in F3 and claimed a hat-trick of pole positions at the Red Bull Ring before claiming a win later in the season. By the time he was winning in F3, he’d taken a leap forwards in GP3. Kvyat was the leading driver across the final three rounds, thumping his opposition in the feature race and eventually comfortably wrapped up the title during the penultimate race.
So from GP3 and F3 to Formula 1 in a matter of months for Kvyat. But the Russian isn’t overawed by his promotion. Kvyat was measured during his practice outings at the end of last season and speaks with a maturity that defies his youth.
“Your career always prepares you for these steps,” he says. “You have to become more mature to be able to look after so many things in Formula 1. Apart from driving you have to deal with a lot of people around you,” he says of the biggest change. When his first day of running at Jerez ended without him even leaving the garage, he was philosophical; “we have to deal with what we have,” he said, showing no signs of frustration.
In Jean-Éric Vergne, Kvyat has a good barometer for a team-mate. The intense Frenchman remains something of a rough gem; his attacking nature reaps rewards during low-grip conditions (think Monaco and Canada last year) but this occasionally plays to his detriment elsewhere. Vergne was usually slower than erstwhile team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying, which put him on the back foot for the race. After two full years in the sport – and now without the immediate prospect of a Red Bull seat – Vergne will be under pressure to improve in 2014. Kvyat has the rookie’s advantage of simply showing the world what he can do. When there are fewer expectations, it is harder to underachieve. With so many technical changes and driver switches in the sport for this season, Kvyat has been able to fly under the radar a little bit. If he can match, or even beat, Vergne in 2014 then people will start to take notice.
His ascension to Formula 1 has been rapid and if he continues this trajectory, then Kvyat will more than reward Red Bull’s faith in his talent.