Pierre Gasly is now a Formula 1 race winner following the incredible events of the 2020 Italian Grand Prix.
He’d already been having an epic season, thoroughly putting the misery of his demotion from Red Bull behind him.
Last month Edd Straw had an exclusive chat with Gasly about his career revival – a resurgence that has now taken him all the way to the top of the podium.
Pierre Gasly headed into last year’s Belgian Grand Prix weekend abandoned and unwanted, relegated from Red Bull Racing to what is now called AlphaTauri.
It might have been a career-ending body blow, but the 24-year-old has shown formidable fortitude over the past 12 months to revitalise his grand prix career to the point where he’s almost unrecognisable from the driver who floundered alongside Max Verstappen.
Since then, he’s recaptured the form that earned him his promotion in the first place, only more so. He was fast in 2018 but inconsistent, but he’s now become a formidable performer in F1’s ultra-competitive mid-pack, better able to anticipate problems and head them off before they set in. Even when race weekends don’t start well, which has often been the case for AlphaTauri this year, he and the team recover.
The result is Gasly has comprehensively outperformed team-mate Daniil Kvyat, only being outqualified by him in a straight fight once since then and outscoring him 46 to 12.
It’s clear the way he was dropped still rankles. Offered the chance to focus on the positives of the situation, specifically that he’s shown remarkable robustness to bounce back so effectively, Gasly makes it very clear that he would rather have not gone through this. He can see the benefits, but underpinning it is that same shrouded outrage what happened to him – perhaps augmented by the fact the man who went the other way, Alex Albon, is also struggling.
“If I could have avoided that part, it would have been better because with Red Bull there were clearly a lot greater things to achieve together,” says Gasly. “But in the end, the situation was what it was.
“It gave me the opportunity to show my mental strength, probably show a bit more of my personality, that I’m not someone who gives up. Even if I felt last year was pretty unfair, I still kept my feelings together and tried to maximise all the chances I had after that.
“Obviously, there were some positives. I felt it was quite harsh and probably unfair, but I guess that’s just sport in general. You always learn more from challenges and build up yourself a lot faster. As many successful people say, success comes from many failures before. I believe that you develop a lot more as a person from facing these kind of challenges.
“I wish we could have avoided that, but that’s just a reality. This happened. I look forward and move forward, maximise every opportunity, and I think that’s what we’ve done with AlphaTauri since I joined them in Spa last year.”
Gasly is always at his best when he has an attacking, exuberant driving style
While Gasly is frustrated with his treatment, so too was the team frustrated with him as he went round in circles struggling for a breakthrough. Even factors such as his seating position became something of an obsession, while his focus on specific corners on the circuit tended to result in him not achieving a good compromise.
As he chased the ideal set-up for one corner, so he lost it for another. The team also felt he struggled to adapt his driving style, generally under-rotating the car and struggling for traction thanks to having more lock on in the exit phase than Verstappen.
But Gasly also feels that his feedback wasn’t taken seriously. That Albon appears to have benefited from a switch to the experienced Simon Rennie as race engineer underscores the frustration given Gasly also claims to have asked for a change last year.
What’s clear is he looks more at ease behind the wheel of the AlphaTauri. While it hasn’t always been perfectly balanced for him this season with a little too much understeer, this has improved in the last two races where he’s been closest to the pace.
Gasly is always at his best when he has an attacking, exuberant driving style. Hard on the brakes, rotate the rear positively and deal with any imbalance that might compromise getting hard on the power. Gasly says this is a car that he can attack with, and it shows.
We rarely saw that Gasly behind the wheel of the Red Bull, even though he doesn’t believe there are any fundamental differences in characteristics that made the driving challenge different.
“I would say it feels quite similar, to be honest,” he says of the comparison. “We get some parts of the Red Bull and I would say it’s quite a similar car to drive. Probably not as with much downforce, because the aero side we have to do everything ourselves and Red Bull is really strong on that.
“It’s just extracting and understanding what you need from the car and maximising the potential you have with all the tools you have in your hands. We seem to be doing really well, I still feel like there are a couple of things we could be better at. I guess like everyone. It’s quite s similar car to drive but with lower downforce.”
The references to the tools is an interesting one. Plenty of drivers have struggled to adapt to the many different settings available to them and some moving into top teams have been confronted with a baffling away of diff options, brake shapes and all the minor details that can be optimised lap to lap and even corner to corner. Verstappen is not just a seriously fast team-mate, he’s also an intelligent one who has the capacity to work these systems to maximum advantage.
Perhaps that was the area that Gasly needed more time. Valtteri Bottas, for example, said he needed a year to fully get on top of the various tools available to him at Mercedes and he has continued to improve his use of them ever since. Perhaps that explains why a driver like Gasly, who has always been seriously quick, looked slow in comparison to the established Verstappen in that short timeframe?
What’s clear is Gasly’s more at home at AlphaTauri. It’s true that in outperforming Kvyat he’s not up against a driver of the calibre of Verstappen, but there’s little doubt he’s extracting a greater percentage of the potential of his current car than he did the Red Bull. So why is it going so well?
“That’s a good question,” says Gasly. “We had some really strong results since the second part of last year, we took the opportunities we had and I would say it’s going even better now.
Where his future lies, and whether Red Bull really would give him another shot is impossible to know
“With a bit more experience, I know what I need and what I want from the car. I’m feeling like I can perform at my best level and everything is around me to give me this opportunity. Red Bull was a ‘particular’ time considering my level in previous years Super Formula, in GP2, and also before that. It’s an evolution of me as a driver, still keeping that same speed but just executing things a bit better now with slightly more experience.
“Working with the same team, the same people, after some time understand [each other] a bit better. So my engineer understands which direction I like to go, what I mean when I have too much understeer mid-corner, when I like more rotation in high-speed, the degree and the level of front-end I want. Saying the same comments can mean something different depending on the driver because it’s purely feeling related.
“I guess we have a really good understanding now with the team of what I need to go fast, and there are areas we need to work on to maximise and extract the full potential of the car. I would say that’s probably it.
“Then afterwards the understanding of the tyre and the car in general, which keeps evolving the more you drive with it. Also, in the direction of the developments, now I have a bit stronger opinions than when I came for my first year in Toro Rosso, where everything is a bit brand new, so you’re adapting yourself without really knowing all of the stuff that you can change, which in F1 is quite impressive. I’m also better in giving directions of where I will need to go to go faster with the package.”
The result is consistently good performances in a congested part of the midfield. On average, the AlphaTauri has been only the seventh-fastest car, although Gasly himself suspects the Renault has a similar level of downforce but perhaps an aero efficiency advantage.
This means reaching Q3 is a fine achievement and something Gasly has done four times in six attempts this year – and on one of the two occasions he failed he set a time that was good enough for the top 10 but missed the cut thanks to setting it after a rival’s identical time.
In some ways, life in F1’s midfield is easier than it is at the front. But it’s also hugely competitive with tiny margins making a big difference to the results. Any driver thriving here and consistently performing well, extracting more from their package to get ahead of potentially quicker cars, is doing a very good job.
It’s tempting just to say that Verstappen would be just as far up the road from Gasly in an AlphaTauri as he was in a Red Bull, but there’s no evidence to support the suggestion that kind of unexploited potential in the car.
Gasly has scored points three times, twice for seventh places, while in the three races he’s failed to do so there have been clear reasons. A clout from Ricciardo in Turn 1 stymied his Styrian Grand Prix, engine troubles forced him out early in Hungary and a dire strategy in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix left him 11th after qualifying seventh. That’s a formidable record in a marginal points car.
“That’s what you’re always looking for, maximising the potential you have,” says Gasly. “On pure pace in normal conditions we’re probably the seventh fastest even if the gap is not that big. We know that if we are to maximise our chances, we really need to extract 100% from our package and others not get everything together. Then we have a chance.
“Even though we’ve had some tough Fridays, which don’t seem to work so well for us, every time we’ve managed to really go in the right direction and improve the car from session to session to get it pretty much where we want it to be. As a driver, you’re never fully happy with the balance or it happens once or twice in the year but in the end, we always make some steps forward through the weekend which is the most important.
“Pretty much every weekend so far, we’ve maximised our car, even though we’ve had a couple of issues here and there. But hopefully we can keep that momentum.”
It’s difficult to say what the future holds for Gasly. It would be foolish for Red Bull to descend into a merry-go-round of swapping drivers between Red Bull and AlphaTauri as one driver after the other struggles against Verstappen and, for now, Gasly is probably better off where he is. After all, hitting his head against a brick wall every weekend at Red Bull was getting him nowhere.
Where his future lies, and whether Red Bull really would give him another shot is impossible to know. But a driver performing at this level on a sustained basis, and he’s already done it for 12 months despite the anguish of his relegation, will catch the attention of plenty of teams in F1.
Much as he might not like it, perhaps what was the worst thing that could have happened to him by being dropped might prove to be the making of Pierre Gasly?