There's more to Red Bull's decision to choose Kvyat over Alonso than what you may think
After the terrible events of last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix that have left Jules Bianchi lying in intensive care fighting for his life, it’s easy to forget that, just a day earlier, Formula 1 underwent perhaps the biggest shock to its driver market in recent memory.
Sebastian Vettel’s sudden decision to walk away from Red Bull for 2015, and thereby dissolve what is statistically the sport’s second most successful team/driver partnership ever, took the whole F1 paddock by surprise, and seems to have actually generated more questions than answers.
No official word on either front
While it seems all but certain that Vettel is on his way to Ferrari and that Fernando Alonso, the man previously thought to hold all the aces, is closing on a deal to re-unite with McLaren, there has been no official word on either front. Speculation has emerged that Vettel could in fact be McLaren-bound, and that Alonso could yet stay at Ferrari, join Mercedes, or perhaps not even be on the F1 grid in 2015 at all.
What we do know
All we know for certain at this stage is that Daniil Kvyat is to make the step up from Toro Rosso to fill the breach left by Vettel at Red Bull, and that Alonso will therefore not be joining the Milton-Keynes based team as some had predicted – and not only that, but that the man widely regarded as the best driver in the field wasn’t even considered to line up alongside Daniel Ricciardo next year.
That admission by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner in itself says a lot about the rather unconventional ways things are done by the Anglo-Austrian outfit. Mercedes may have both of its current drivers under contract, but is thought to be keen on signing Alonso should it find itself unable to retain Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton, while McLaren has made little attempt to disguise its attempts to lure the Spaniard back to Woking for almost a year.
Kvyat/Ricciardo pairing > Alonso/Ricciardo
There’s little doubt that a Ricciardo-Alonso line-up would be more likely to deliver Red Bull the title in 2015 than a Ricciardo-Kvyat one, but the decision to sign the 20-year-old and not the 32-time Grand Prix winner is a logical one when you examine the precise circumstances more deeply.
To fully understand why, it’s important to consider the role of Ricciardo. When Red Bull promoted the genial Australian to a place alongside Vettel last year, thereby spurning Kimi Raikkonen, it did so in the full expectation that it would be the German who would continue to spearhead their campaign, with Ricciardo expected to take time to mature into a top-line performer.
But, Ricciardo’s speedier-than-anticipated rise to F1 stardom left Red Bull in more or less the same situation in which it found itself a year ago. The decision to replace Mark Webber with Ricciardo rather than Raikkonen attracted some criticism, but the success of the former, allied to the struggles of the latter to match Ferrari teammate Alonso this year, has more than vindicated the team’s choice.
Risk vs. reward
More than that, Ricciardo’s performances this year have provided further proof that Red Bull’s young driver scheme works exactly as intended and, with the 25-year-old under lock and key, the team was able to take something of a gamble with its driver choice this time around, safe in the knowledge that, failing all else, Ricciardo will be there to deliver the goods.
In short, with Ricciardo on board, Red Bull doesn’t need Alonso, much in the same way that, last year, they didn’t need Raikkonen with Vettel going nowhere.
Make no mistake - signing Kvyat, who has just 15 F1 starts to his name, is a risk. But then again, so was promoting the Russian to Toro Rosso in place of the far more experienced Antonio Felix da Costa in the first place. Kvyat has, by all accounts, adapted superbly to the rigours of F1 with so little experience behind him, and there’s little reason to think why he couldn’t do so again at a top team.
And, in the unlikely event that Kvyat turns out not to be up to the challenge, that’s where Max Verstappen and the other drivers on Red Bull’s junior programme, one of whom will be getting the call to join the Dutch teenager at Toro Rosso in the coming weeks, come in.
Red Bull's youthful image
At the end of the day, Red Bull’s choice to spurn Alonso ultimately boils down to the youthful image they are trying to project through their involvement in F1 and countless other sports. However good Alonso may be, signing a 33-year-old to race for the team is at odds with that image.
Red Bull chose to begin investing millions of dollars in the careers of dozens of young drivers not out of altruism, but in the hope of moulding a couple of them into the perfect ambassadors for their brand. The energy drink giant has succeeded in doing precisely that with Vettel and Ricciardo, so why should it stop now?
Alonso may be a global megastar, but he’s not one that Red Bull itself has created. That’s the main reason why F1’s most successful team of the last five years didn’t give a second thought to signing Kvyat in trying to replicate the formula that has proven such a hit once again.