Valencia, August 2009. It's the European Grand Prix and Formula 1 paddock lives and breathes through any and all news updates about Michael Schumacher. That weekend, the legendary German was to be back in the Ferrari cockpit, stepping in for Felipe Massa, who had been in a awful accident in the preceding round in Hungary. Instead, it would be test driver Luca Badoer behind the wheel, as Schumacher's return was called off for a neck injury. But the German is in the paddock – in a red Ferrari shirt, as an official representative.
Jenson Button of Brawn GP is leading the championship. His main rivals are Red Bull Racing drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, the latter still very young. Their team had only celebrated its first win a few months back, but it's clear that it'll be a force to be reckoned with for the coming years – after all, its cars are created by the genius designer Adrian Newey.
That very weekend marks the first paddock appearance of 15-year-old Russian karting driver Daniil Kvyat – one of the leaders of the prestigious World Series of Karting in the KF3 class, a Winter Cup champion, a Trofeo Andrea Martgutti winner and one of the favourites of the upcoming world championship.
Kvyat is greeted by Antonio Ferrari, a stocky Italian wandering eyes, who heads the Eurointernational team that is dominating Formula BMW Europe. The races of that series are run on the same weekends as Formula 1, and Ferrari's cars are painted Red Bull's corporate colours – driven, at that point, by Daniel Juncadella and Felipe Nasr. The latter leads the championship with a huge advantage and is closing in on the championship title. If all goes according to plan, one of Eurointernational's cars for the following year is Kvyat's. The Russian is here to meet Dr. Helmut Marko – ex-F1 driver and Red Bull's racing consultant, famed for being a firm character. Heading the company's young driver development programme, the Austrian has remorselessly written off drivers who had not lived up to the expectations – often informing those being dismissed with nothing but a short text message. Marko is only interested in the best. And that is why Kvyat is here.
"It all started with an Antonio Ferrari phone call. He invited me to test Formula BMW. To be honest, initially it wasn't very clear, what Red Bull had to do with it – Antonio mentioned something, but there were no specifics. Me and my father went to the tests simply because it was interesting. In actuality, we were thinking to stick around in karting for another year – it wasn't the norm back then to be moving on at 17. Before the tests, many asked me whether I was lining up a move to 'formula' racing a bit early.
"But we went anyway. It was at Varano, Eurointernational's home track. There we met Carlos Sainz and his father. I remember how all five of us went to dinner: us, them and Antonio. At the end, he called me aside and told me: 'Do you realise how important tomorrow is? Red Bull will be aware of everything.'
"He added: 'You, most likely, will be in 'formula racing' next year.' I stood there and nodded, while thinking: 'What is he talking about?' Me and and my father, we already had some plans for karting next season, we'd already outlined certain goals. Well, I thought, if he's saying this now, he might know something.
"Then came the tests. For me it was like a whole new world. I had my first seat fit, sat in a closed cockpit for the first time and was preparing, for the first time, to use a gear shifter. I remember how I got a massive callus on my right hand from testing – there were lots of jokes about what caused it afterwards, in karting. At the end of the day, I was seriously tired. But I was happy, the laptimes were good. Nobody else posted those kinds of times on their first day. Carlos was faster, but he'd had quite a few Formula BMW tests before that.
All in all, we both did well, and soon another phone call followed. Antonio warned that I would be contacted by Dr. Marko.
"Of course I'd heard of him, had an idea of who he was – but it wasn't a complete picture. He told me: 'Hello, my friend. How are you doing?' 'I'm fine, how are you?' was the answer. 'I'm great. You drove well in the tests, and I'd like to invite you to Valencia. Come there and we can talk about a contract.' And that was when began to realise that this was serious.
"The Formula 1 paddock first time around seemed absolutely enormous. Cosmic space. All so unusual. I saw Schumacher, he walked right by me. 'Oh wow', I thought. Then I saw Jenson, even got his autograph – a girl who knew I would be going has asked to get it. I walked up and said: 'Jenson, can I have your autograph?' He signed for me, smiled. Truth be told, later I ended up losing the autograph.
"Before going to Marko, we first spoke to Antonio. He met us, told us in brief what to expect from the talks. And then we went to the Red Bull motorhome, and the three of us sat down: my father, myself and Marko. It was mostly the two of us speaking, as dad wasn't too fluent in English. Dr. Marko said that he wanted me in the programme, gave us a contract to look over. Told us we had some time to think. I answered: 'Good, we'll be back tomorrow.' "
Two of them had come to Valencia. The father, Vyacheslav Kvyat, a Ufa businessman and a former member of the Kurultai [State Assembly] of the Republic of Bashkortostan, is who Daniil basically owes his career to. Vyacheslav supported his son's interest, when Daniil had just taken up karting. When he was 12 and achieving his first successes, Vyacheslav decided to relocate the whole family to Italy, so that his son could take part in the most prestigious karting tournaments and fight against the toughest opposition. Before the Barcelona trip, the father was basically the manager of racing driver Daniil Kvyat, and now he was preparing to put his signature on a contract with the strongest development programme for talented young drivers that had ever existed.
"I was to sign the contract because Daniil at that point was still a 15-year-old kid. By that point he was negotiating by himself, but in this case Marko warned: 'Bring your father'. Because Daniil himself had no legal right to be signing anything.
"For me, a new world opened up there. I was in business, in money, and here – even in karting – I found myself within an entirely different atmosphere. Where kids do what they love. Where they can go without sleep almost until the morning, when they have to – go to sleep at four, wake up at seven and head on over to the race, with no complaints.
"And Formula 1 was just a different planet. We arrived to the paddock. As we sat in the motorhome, we were approached by Vettel, who said a couple of words. Then Newey. Marko introduced us to him, but I hadn't even known who he was. I hadn't even seen a single race at that point – only maybe at a glance on TV. "The biggest impression was left by the punctuality and the order around. I stuck around until the evening to watch, as I was interested how they'd be packing up. No shouting. Everyone's doing their job, packing up. Calm, methodical – and by the morning it's all cleaned up, like nobody had been there.
"Marko I liked right away. With him it's also all clear, straight to the point, without any unnecessary words and emotions. Daniil was the one talking to him but I, naturally, understood what was going on. At the end he gave us a piece of paper – I took it, folded it in half, put it in my bag. Figured it was a draft, we could look and tweak. 'When you're ready, call,' he said. We told him: 'We'll be back tomorrow'.
"In the evening we sat down in the hotel and read it when we could. Didn't call anybody – no attorneys, no lawyers. All the key details were all written down clearly. The gist of it was perfectly understandable, and the final decision we made by ourselves, that very same evening.
"The next day we came back – me with that same document, folded up and even crumpled up a bit. Marko was already there. He was never late when we'd later arrange meetings with him, he was always on time. We tell him: 'We're ready to sign'. He tells us: 'Well, sign'. I tell him: 'What, this one?' 'Of course, which else?' "So that's how I signed the fastest contract of my life."