Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Entering the Lair of the Honey Badger: How Will Kvyat Stack Up Against Ricciardo in 2015?

In amongst the understandable excitement that surrounded two of F1’s biggest name drivers playing musical seats, the story of the dominant team of recent years signing a relatively unproven rookie was rather neglected. 

Red Bull’s rather bizarre urgency to confirm that Daniil Kvyat (pictured on the right) would be replacing the departing Sebastian Vettel made one wonder if there was a risk that if the seat was left open for more than 24 hours that Pastor Maldonado would jump in it. 

Kvyat’s promotion to the senior team is in line with Red Bull’s policy of selecting drivers only from their Young Drivers Programme, which they have invested heavily in and which has borne some impressive results in the form of Vettel, Ricciardo and rising stars Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Kvyat’s promotion did little to improve the mood of Jean-Eric Vergne, who looked understandably p*ssed off ever since he was told ‘merci for the memories Jean-Eric’ by Toro Rosso (although there's a chance he may retain his seat). 

So were Red Bull right to promote Kvyat? And how will he get on against the all-conquering Daniel Ricciardo?

To find some answers, we’re going to use JEV as a benchmark, and compare him against both Ricciardo and Kvyat to gauge the young Russian’s abilities. We’ll look at qualifying, race performance and key moments from the Russian’s fledgling F1 career. A couple of caveats we’ve kept in mind are:

a) Kvyat is up against a more experienced and, it’s safe to assume we feel, improved JEV compared to the driver that Ricciardo faced.
b) Unlike Kvyat, Ricciardo was not a complete rookie when he joined Toro Rosso, having enjoyed half a season in the mighty HRT.

Both of the above obviously advantage Ricciardo. Another point is that Ricciardo and Vergne competed under a previous set of regulations, and we don’t know how well each has adapted to the 2014 regs relative to each other, so that puts a question mark over the comparisons. 



* average time difference only applies to dry sessions, and their last comparable time. If one driver exits in Q1 track evolution may give a misleading comparison.

In their two years together, Ricciardo amassed a staggering 27-4 dry qualifying head to head record against Vergne (4-4 in wet qualifying). In their first season together Dan was, on average, 0.314 seconds per lap quicker in dry qualifying across the year, which improved to 0.428 seconds in 2013. 

In comparison, Kvyat this year (as of the Russian GP) leads Vergne 9-4 in dry qualifying (Vergne is ahead 3-2 in the wet). On average, he is 0.156 seconds per lap quicker than Vergne in the dry this season.

A couple of conclusions jump out here, one of which is that Ricciardo is an exceptionally strong qualifier, as has become increasingly evident this season as he has outqualified Vettel 10-7 (8-4 in the dry). On raw data alone, it appears that over one lap Ricciardo has a fairly significant advantage - 2-3 tenths on average over Kvyat. However, accounting for our two important caveats above we can see a much closer picture. We feel that the JEV of 2014 is likely to be slightly quicker per lap than in 2012, and when this is taken into account there’s not much between Ricciardo and Kvyat in qualifying pace based on their rookie Toro Rosso year. It should be noted that overall Ricciardo does seem quicker especially off the back of the 2013 year. 

Interestingly Kvyat seems to be getting on top of his battle with Vergne towards the end of 2014 with three significant performances in Russia, United States and Brazil (see below).

Time difference in qualifying between JEV and Ricciardo/Kvyat in dry qualifying sessions. Ricciardo denoted by the blue diamond (2012) and the red square (2013). Kvyat is the green triangle (2014). Any shapes above the middle line indicate that JEV outqualified Ricciardo/Kvyat, shapes below are the opposite. This is a useful comparison which helps to compare abilities on different tracks.


* results have been counted at the point where either driver retired, unless the leading driver caused their own retirement through collision damage. This is counted as a loss. Where there is significant doubt about the result or one driver is handicapped from the 1st lap results are not counted.

For race performance analysis we’re more interested in head to head record than points tally. Points rarely paint the whole picture (and sometimes present completely the wrong one), especially in a smaller team where one strong finish could skew the results. A good example is Vergne’s 6that this season’s Singapore GP. Whilst an impressive drive, Vergne benefitted from a number of quicker drivers running into issues (Button, Rosberg, Bottas, Raikkonen) and also a safety car that played into his hands.

Unsurprisingly, Ricciardo’s qualifying dominance gave him an edge on race day, and in 2 car finishes he led Vergne 8-7 in head to head in 2012, which improved to 6-3 in 2013. Although Dan’s superior head to head record translated into a 20-13 points advantage in 2013, Vergne actually outscored Dan 16-10 in 2012 due to his quintet of 8th placed finishes, whilst Dan was busy racking up 9ths and 10ths. What is quite impressive though is that Vergne’s 31-8 qualifying head to head deficit (including wet and dry) was reduced to just a 14-10 race head to head deficit in 2 car finishes. It indicates that JEV is much stronger in the race than in qualifying.

Although Vergne has scored nearly three times the points of Kvyat this year (22-8), many of his points came from that one 6th placed finish in Singapore. In 2 car finishes the picture is closer, with Vergne leading the head to head 7-5. Again Vergne has fought back in the race.

Kvyat’s race head to head stacks up reasonably against what Dan was able to do competing with Vergne in his first year at Toro Rosso. Kvyat is currently 7-5 down, Dan finished 8-7 up. Given the caveats about Dan’s extra experience at HRT and Vergne’s improvement since 2012 this reflects pretty well on Kvyat, especially if he can build on lessons learnt this year.

Key moments

A Formula One Driver is also defined by their outstanding drives and the devastating mistakes that they make, so we’re going to explore some of the most significant moments of this year for Kvyat. Kvyat crushed Vergne in both Spa (quicker all weekend) and Monza (started from the back, brakes failed at the end and still beat him). It’s notable though that these races followed the announcement that Toro Rosso were letting the Frenchman go at the end of this year, and Vergne cut a pretty dejected figure during this point of the season.

On the other hand Kvyat was completely beaten for pace in Hungary, lost out in Japan despite Vergne starting from the back, and then had a shocker in Singapore (hindered though by an issue with his drinks bottle during the race). The recent weekend in Russia was a tough one for the young Russian, as a stunning 5th place in qualifying was followed by a nightmare race as he fluffed the start and then ruined his tyres unsuccessfully battling with other cars later in the race, eventually finishing around 15 seconds behind his teammate. It doesn’t look good that at his home race of the season and first full race weekend after being promoted he chucked in one of his worst races of the year.


So just how good is Russia’s finest (F1 driver)? Pretty good, we think. He compares well with Dan in his first year as a Toro Rosso driver – not as quick over one lap or in the race but close. A lot though will depend on how Kvyat develops over the next couple of years. Dan made a big step forward from 2012 to 2013 when compared to Vergne, and is now a very strong driver. It’s impossible for us to judge whether Kvyat will make similarly impressive strides. We wouldn’t be surprised if the more experienced Australian beats him heavily next year, especially in qualifying, but we should see glimpses of just how good Kvyat can be.

The bad news for Kvyat (if being given the chance to drive a Red Bull can ever be bad news) is that he will need to get up to speed quite quickly. If the hype is to be believed about young Max Verstappen, then the flying Dutchman could be breathing down his neck for a Red Bull seat in 2017 or even 2016 if his rookie year is Hamilton-esque. If Kvyat doesn’t match up well to Dan within a couple of years he may find himself on the F1 sidelines, along with a number of other former Red Bull protégés.

And a quick word for poor old JEV. His very respectable record against Dan, and Dan’s consequent thumping of Vettel this year show him to be at the very least deserving of a seat in F1, certainly over drivers like Sutil, Gutierrez and Ericsson. Hopefully a team snaps him up next year. Red Bull concluded that JEV doesn’t have the potential to reach the level that Ricciardo is operating at now (and based on the stats we’d agree – Ricciardo made a bigger step forward than JEV in 2013 and seems to have leapt forward again this year), but he’s still a good driver.

Was promoting Kvyat after just one season the right move for Red Bull? Both Ricciardo and Vettel had two years at Toro Rosso, plus time at other teams before that before being promoting to the big time. It will be tough for Daniil to make the jump after one season, especially with the radio restrictions for 2015. We don’t doubt his potential to be a top driver, but it’s hard not to feel that this is a year too early, which will hurt the team’s hopes of clawing back the Constructors’ Championship from Mercedes in 2015

In the end though they didn’t have many other options. They had already determined that JEV isn’t good enough to drive for the senior team, and it would be against their policy of sticking with their Young Drivers Programme to pick someone else (like the exceptionally capable Alonso). In the end it’s not an ideal option, but it’s the best available given Vettel’s twitchy feet. 

Positively Ricciardo has proven himself capable of leading the team’s charge for the Drivers’ Championship so we can see why it was a straightforward decision for Red Bull.

How Kvyat compares against the stand out driver of 2014 will be one of a number of great storylines to follow next season. We feel that if he can score at least 70% of the points that Dan scores next year then that’s a very impressive result.

Nathaniel Smith and Scott Williams 

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