The promotion of Red Bull rookie Daniil Kvyat to the Toro Rosso seat for next year came as a big surprise – so why was he chosen and was it the right decision for the team?
Red Bull has a clear strategy in F1, with the lead team now established champions and the Toro Rosso squad serving as the feeder to develop and nurture its young drivers. Beneath F1, there is a long list of Red Bull-backed hopefuls from which they hope the next top talent will develop.
The idea is to create a continuous chain of champions, with Daniel Ricciardo now stepping up to Red Bull Racing to learn from Sebastian Vettel until the inevitable happens and Vettel leaves. If the plan succeeds, Ricciardo becomes the next Red Bull superstar.
Red Bull Racing itself has now developed into a one-car team, with the management sensibly acknowledging that focusing on one lead driver (whether overtly or covertly) gives the best chance of securing the coveted drivers’ title. The constructors’ crown is just a bonus.
This year, Toro Rosso drivers Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne went head to head for the role alongside Vettel, with Vergne losing out only after an extremely detailed analysis of their relative performance.
The decision on which one to take was a hard one, but given the nature of well-nurtured talent, it is the tiny differences that count.
Many top F1 teams spot their talent young these days and help them grow through the motorsport ladder, giving the chosen few everything from expert set-up advice and access to top engineers to public relations training and experience in simulators.
It means that most top drivers in the lower categories are already part of a development scheme, and all that investment in chosen youngsters makes it even harder for the overlooked to even get noticed.
It is understood that Kvyat comes with significant Russian backing and his signing also clearly opens up a potentially lucrative market for Red Bull in Russia – but the nature of Red Bull’s driver programme is such that he still had to show significant talent to secure the seat.
And he has done just that.
Antonio Felix da Costa was the man expected to secure the seat, but he has had a tough start to the year in Formula Renault 3.5 and, according to Red Bull, has not shown strong enough form while playing catch-up. Put simply, he has not been stellar enough to deserve a place in F1.
Kvyat, meanwhile, has busy been running side-by-side campaigns in GP3 and European F3. In GP3, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner’s Arden team, he is currently seven points behind championship leader Facu Regalia and the form man, with one race weekend left to take the title. In F3, racing for Carlin, he has also shown good pace especially in wet conditions - often a sign of a natural talent - and although not registered to score points he has notched up five poles and one win.
He is also said to have impressed Red Bull with his feedback in a young driver test for Toro Rosso earlier this year, despite running just 22 laps before he spun out.
Despite his apparent talent, however, his lack of track experience in F1 machinery in a season of rule changes that will give teams a steep learning curve, would have made Red Bull think hard about signing him.
The thing is, though, Toro Rosso is there to develop young drivers, and in F1 to build from inexperienced to good to superstar takes time.
With Vettel, aged 26, in place until 2016 and Ricciardo and Vergne next in line, they already have a good selection for the foreseeable future.
They only have room for one superstar in what has become a very one-driver focused team, so they must now consider their timeline of driver development carefully and plan for the long term.
Ricciardo was born on July 1 1989 and Vergne on April 25, 1990. Felix Da Costa, born Aug 31 1991, is in a similar age range whereas Kvyat, who was born Apr 26 1994, is effectively a half generation behind.
Perhaps, then, even if it takes a while, using the Toro Rosso spot to nurture Kvyat as a star for the next era could be a very clever move...