The Inside Line #90: Straight in the deep end

TILI Logo PrintHe may have been out of Formula One for a year and a lot less visible than he once was, but Mark Webber’s penchant for straight talking is intact. The topic was the composition of the F1 grid, and he was in a forthright mood. “Mate, it’s rubbish,” he said, intimating that he would have said something stronger had we not been doing an interview for broadcast [1]. “We need to focus on things which are important for the sport, i.e. keeping the teams financially safe on the grid and having the best drivers in the world on the grid. And not having half the best drivers and the rest paying …”

It’s easy in sport to look back at the ‘good old days’ with rose-tinted glasses, but Webber has a point. Just look at the entry list from his first year in F1 in 2002; only Enrique Bernoldi at Arrows and Webber’s Minardi teammate Alex Yoong could be considered as ‘pay’ drivers [2]. These days? Half the field isn’t too far off. Which makes the rise of Daniil Kvyat over the past 12 months all the more enjoyable.

Sure, the Russian came to F1 with a background funded by Red Bull, but to even get that funding, you need to show plenty as a youngster before the dollars dry up. And then look at how some of the Red Bull-backed drivers fare when they do actually make it to F1 [3]. Other than Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, not many of them have fired a shot. Kvyat looks set to be an exception to that trend.

Twelve months ago, the 19-year-old came to Melbourne for the season-opening Australian GP looking far too young to drive an F1 car and appeared out of his depth as the heavens opened in qualifying; 24 hours later, he’d finished ninth to become the youngest points-scorer in F1 history, and built on that with two points finishes in the next three races. When Vettel made his shock announcement that he was leaving Red Bull at the Japanese Grand Prix, Kvyat was a no-brainer from Red Bull’s current stable of drivers to be named his replacement. But is he ready?

Webber says yes. “It’s always exciting when you have a youngster who comes in on merit and does very well,” he says, while Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, still seeming somewhat chastened by being dumped by Vettel, reckons his new driver could be as good as the driver who stayed at the team between seasons. “We’ve already seen what Daniel is capable of, and we firmly believe Dany has got all the same attributes,” he says. “They’re young, they’re hungry, they’re keen, they’re incredibly quick, and I think they’re going to push each other very toughly throughout the year.” [4]

That remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting the Russian’s potential. How will he fare at the sharp end of the grid if the RB11 is capable of at least taking the fight to the rest of the field behind what looks to be an untouchable Mercedes? Australia in less than a fortnight’s team will reveal plenty. On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, he’ll be fine. The partnership of Ricciardo – who proved himself last year but now has to back it up with the extra expectation that wasn’t present 12 months ago – and the green but keen Kvyat promises to be one of the more fascinating and unpredictable inter-team rivalries of the season. It’s also likely to be much closer than most think.

Kvyat’s big move to a frontline team is dissected on Episode 90 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also wrap up the final pre-season test in Barcelona, one that took place without Fernando Alonso, and have Toto Wolff take us on a back-stage tour of the Mercedes HQ in Brackley as the beginning of the tough task of emulating one of the most dominant F1 seasons in history edges ever-closer.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

– — —- —-

[1] The subsequent and off the record version of this chat was far more amusing and absolutely not fit for print.

[2] A deep field, undoubtedly. But Ferrari still won 15 of the 17 races …

[3] Scott Speed remains one of my favourite F1 names, if only for the irony.

[4] Yes, he really did say ‘toughly’. And no, I’m not sure why either.

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