Daniil Kvyat’s day in the sun with fourth place in the Emilia Romagna Grand was likely too little, too late to save his drive with the AlphaTauri team after a season during which he has consistently been overshadowed by team-mate Pierre Gasly.
The Imola race was a rare opportunity for Kvyat to grab the headlines with his charge from seventh to fourth in the final six laps after the restart, overtaking Sergio Perez, Alex Albon and Charles Leclerc to take his best result since finishing third at Hockenheim last year. It was a reminder that, while Kvyat has not lived up to the potential he showed earlier in his F1 career, he can be a very effective race driver
But by all relevant performance metrics, Kvyat has been outperformed by Gasly this year. Gasly has out-qualified him 11 times in 13 races – with the average gap over the year just under two tenths – and has scored 63 points to Kvyat’s 26. Even factoring in the good fortune Gasly had to be in a position to win at Monza, Kvyat has been convincingly outclassed. While his race performances are generally better than those in qualifying, Gasly has also excelled on Sundays in comparison.
This has been the case ever since Gasly returned to what was then called Toro Rosso after the August break in 2019. Even at Imola, Kvyat was two tenths slower than Gasly in qualifying and would likely have finished as the second-best Toro Rosso had the Frenchman not suffered a coolant leak that forced him to retire early on.
Kvyat has usually shrugged off questions about his future, insisting that he’s not concerned regardless of whether or not AlphaTauri keeps him. But he did argue after the race that he is delivering at a high enough level and a performance like this will help his cause in the unlikely event Tsunoda is not able to take up the drive.
“I am doing enough, but it’s not up to me,” he told Sky Sports F1. “There are other things out of my control and I am just focusing on enjoying these last five races of the year and then we’ll see.
“We had a strong race. I am very happy for my side, from the team side they made a very good [strategy] call and I’m very happy with them. I’ve been in this team since 2014 and they came a long way. I am proud of that and also had a lot of fun on that safety car restart
“It’s a shame to miss out by very little on the podium spot but I pushed until the end. Daniel [Ricciardo, who finished third, having not stopped for fresh rubber under the safety car] just managed to warm up his tyres when I got behind him.”
While part of the reason for Kvyat’s results was the improved performance relative to the rest of the midfield of the AlphaTauri, which allowed him to reach Q3 for the first time in a year, the car’s strengths were in the right place to suit Kvyat. Generally, he’s struggled more in qualifying compared to Gasly when the rear end of the car has been more lively, but one of its strengths at Imola was stability.
Despite his struggles to match Verstappen at Red Bull, Gasly has not lacked for confidence when driving for Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri even at times when the car hasn’t been so well-balanced. This has ensured he has very rarely been outperformed by Kvyat.
“You need a reasonable level of efficiency round here, our downforce package is pretty much suited to it and you need a good level of stability in the car,” said technical director Jody Egginton after qualifying.
“We’ve been working hard to get rear-axle stability into the car and that’s allowed the drivers to push here, which gives them confidence. And the car’s got a reasonable operating window.
“Our main area of focus nearly every event has been getting the rear axle to work properly and getting the rear tyres to work properly over the longer runs – and we’ve managed to have the rear axle under control, the tyres are in the window. The car’s well-balanced over short and long runs. So if we hadn’t got that right here, and we were struggling with the rear axle, be it tyre or stability, then we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Team principal Franz Tost suggested during the Portuguese Grand Prix weekend that the final decision on AlphaTauri’s second driver will not take place until after Tsunoda runs in the post-Abu Dhabi Grand Prix young driver test. This also follows the final event of the Formula 2 season, which is almost certain to confirm he will have sufficient points to qualify for a superlicence.
This means Kvyat’s slender hopes of retaining the seat are technically still alive as is the possibility Alex Albon could be recalled if required – with Tost suggesting “it’s better to have a queue than nothing” when it comes to driver options for 2021 even though an F1 career that should encompass 110 starts by the end of the season is set to stall again.
“We were not lucky, we took the right decision because all the other teams could have done the same,”said Tost of the decision to stop under the safety car that allowed Kvyat to launch his late charge. “Some of them did it, some not. We did and we got something out of it.
“Three places at the end because he was seventh and afterwards he was fourth, just behind Ricciardo and with more laps to go I think he could have had a good chance also to overtake him.
“It was a fantastic move [on Leclerc]. Daniil was also in qualifying very good. He likes this track. He was very happy with the car. And he showed really good performance.”
Tost also added that a decision on the seat is expected “soon” as well as stressing that AlphaTauri is willing to field Tsunoda in FP1 sessions should he need a few extra superlicence points to secure the seat.
Last time he dropped out off the F1 grid after being replaced by Toro Rosso, Kvyat took up a Ferrari simulator role that ensured he was a valid candidate when Red Bull effectively ran out of drivers for its junior team.
It appears that a non-racing F1 role is his best chance of staying around next year. At 26, he still has time on his side and his experience means he would be in a good position should a team unexpectedly need a stand-in driver next year, but there’s every chance the next four races will be his final ones in grand prix racing.