Why has Toro Rosso gone back to Daniil Kvyat?

SOCHI, Russia — Given the remarkable nature of Daniil Kvyat’s racing career to this point, it’s hard to believe the Russian driver is still only 24 years old.

Confirmation of his return to Toro Rosso for next season continues an unconventional and slightly bizarre sequence of events which have punctuated the former GP3 champion’s career. After impressing with Toro Rosso in 2014 he was given the unenviable task of filling the void left by four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s defection to Ferrari following season. Erratic form saw him demoted in early 2016 but his struggles continued at Toro Rosso, where he was dropped for two races in 2017, only to be reinstated for one more race before being dropped again and then cut completely from the Red Bull programme.

On reflection, the term “unconventional” could be considered something of an understatement.

There has always been a feeling that Red Bull recognised the role it had played in Kvyat loss of form. Although the senior team has benefitted massively from the promotion of Max Verstappen (who famously won the first race after the switch), Kvyat paid a heavy price for going in the other direction — the events leading up to the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix were the start of a slow spiral that only seemed to accelerate the following year. In the final days of his second stint he was clearly an agitated man, sometimes seemingly withdrawn.

His raw talent has never been in doubt. After cutting ties with the Russian, the head of Red Bull’s driver programme, Helmut Marko, agreed with a suggestion Kvyat was more talented than Pierre Gasly, the man now making the step up to Red Bull.

During the same media session, Marko added: “Something happened to him mentally. He lost his speed and his ease.

“We tried many things, but his speed just wouldn’t come back. Unfortunately we have no idea what happened. There were also too many accidents at the start of a race, and he didn’t react too well to it either. He retreated into his shell and didn’t want anybody to tell him what to do.”

In the press release announcing the news on Saturday, Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost stated his belief the Russian’s “undeniable capabilities” should be able to mature now he’s had some time away from the pressure of F1 and Red Bull’s driver programme.

But there is something else clear here. While Marko has shown a willingness to reverse previous decisions — Brendon Hartley was brought back into the fold last year having been cut from the programme in 2010, having blossomed in the World Endurance Championship — there appears to be a reluctance to turn to drivers tarnished by affiliation with Red Bull’s rival outfits. After all, two of the most viable alternatives were outgoing McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne and former Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein. That would have been a quick and exciting line-up but instead the team has turned back to Kvyat, a man it invested a lot of money into in the early days of his career. Wehrlein is still linked to the other seat but mounting speculation in the Sochi paddock is that Hartley will be retained for at least the early portion of 2019.

Then there is the state of Red Bull’s once-vaunted driver programme to consider. In previous years it had an abundance of talent waiting in the wings, whether it was Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne vying to replace Mark Webber for 2014 or the emergences of Kvyat, Verstappen Carlos Sainz and, most recently, Gasly, it was always easy to spot where Red Bull’s next big thing was. That is not the case anymore, with Ricciardo’s imminent move to Renault and Sainz’s departure to Renault magnifying the problem further.

The programme’s leading junior driver is a fascinating and frustrating character, one who is currently paying the price for a big mistake he made aged just 15. English driver Dan Ticktum gained notoriety in a MSA Formula race at Silverstone in 2015, overtaking 10 cars under a Safety Car period and deliberately punting another driver off the road following an earlier altercation. This led to a two-year ban — although the second year was suspended.

Marko was impressed enough with Ticktum’s talent to sign him to the Red Bull programme in 2016 and this year he made a good start to the Formula 3 championship, although his downturn in form recently has caused him to make headlines again for the wrong reasons. Having been overtaken by Mick Schumacher in recent months Ticktum took to social media last week to question the German teenager’s “interesting” resurgence — although he later clarified he had not been insinuating any illegality.

This did not go unnoticed, with Christian Horner telling Sky Sports this weekend: “He’s a character. He sometimes engages mouth before brain.

“He’s a talented driver, but he’s got more development to do before he’s anywhere near a Formula One level. He’s fast, but he just needs to polish off a few rough edges.”

The most obvious consequence of Ticktum’s prior behaviour is the fact he is not a viable option for the team. The year the Englishman missed means he is currently shy of the superlicence points required for a Formula One seat — he would still not have the required tally if he manages to beat Schumacher to the F3 title. The team’s ongoing patience with Ticktum suggests there is a belief he can succeed in F1 in future but he appears to be a long way away from his debut.

In the mean time, Red Bull and Toro Rosso have fallen back on the Kvyat option. The Russian driver deserves the opportunity and will return to much more encouraging circumstances than he left — a team flourishing under its new Honda partnership.

Whether it is a case of third time lucky remains to be seen.