For the first time in his Formula 1 career, Pierre Gasly is preparing for a new season outside of the Red Bull motorsport family as he embarks on a new chapter with Alpine this season – and an opportunity he can’t afford to squander.
When Sergio Perez earned himself a multi-year extension with Red Bull last May, Gasly had resigned himself to yet another year anchoring the AlphaTauri team, eventually penning a year-extension with the Faenza squad to at least ensure he would remain on the grid for 2023.
However, things all changed for the Frenchman in an unexpected way when the driver market silly season exploded in a dramatic way midway through last year at Alpine’s expense.
The Anglo-French outfit had been in the privileged position of considering either Fernando Alonso or Oscar Piastri to partner Esteban Ocon.
But as the team’s hierarchy dithered, it eventually reversed in the opposite direction as Alpine retained neither of those drivers in its ranks for 2023 and beyond.
When Alonso sensationally announced he would be departing to replace the retiring Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin, the Spaniard’s shock exit should have paved the way for Alpine to seamlessly slot Piastri – its highly rated reserve driver – alongside Ocon.
As such, Alpine swiftly confirmed the news. However, later that same night, Piastri issued a statement denying that he would be driving for the team in 2023, with the Australian successfully negotiating terms to replace Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren.
Despite the loss of a two-time champion and a star of the future in one seismic swoop causing a massive PR hit, Alpine managed to escape relatively unscathed in sporting terms as it secured the services of one of the best-performing drivers in recent years.
Although Gasly hadn’t been the Enstone outfit’s primary pick – not even its second choice as has already been acknowledged – that doesn’t mean Gasly was a contingency choice enforced on them, and not a slight against his credentials.
Following his disastrous spell with Red Bull that spanned only 12 races, Gasly soon rebuilt his reputation within the midfield scene. The now 27-year-old managed to achieve his maiden podium only five months on after being demoted to Toro Rosso and then added two more to that second place in Brazil, including clinching his maiden race win at the Italian GP in 2020.
Alongside scooping a third place in Baku the following year, Gasly largely carried AlphaTauri’s efforts in the Constructors’ championship to secure the highest points tally in the team’s entire history in 2021.
Therefore, by that point, Gasly had proven himself deserving of a better move to utilise his talents. AlphaTauri’s regression to ninth place last season in the opening year for the newest set of technical regulations only served to amplify such claims.
Thankfully for Gasly, the spot at Alpine he has subsequently filled became available, granting him the chance to further construct his career away from the limitations he believed were being imposed on him within the confines of Red Bull’s stagnant secondary side.
Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi believes its all-new French line-up is already one of the best around and its team principal, Otmar Szafnauer, is confident the pair can aid its charge towards the front of the field. Those comments come with good reason as, in Gasly and Ocon, Alpine retains one of the more equal driver combinations on the grid.
Both drivers have race-winning experience, having won a solitary grand prix each, and scored a similar number of points (364-332 in Ocon’s favour) throughout F1 careers that have spanned a comparable number of races (111-108, again in Ocon’s favour).
As Alpine aims to build on its fourth-place finish in last season’s standings and make inroads on its long-term ambition to eventually bridge the gap to the runaway three teams, Gasly has certainly arrived at an exciting time for the Renault-owned entity.
The one-time race winner has been particularly enthused by the project ahead of him in helping to turn Alpine from perennial midfield runners to a consistent front-running operation. Gasly has been effusive in his praise that such a turnaround is only a matter of time and his confident words have been supported by his new team during the winter period.
With much attention to improving its poor reliability record from last year, a striking car philosophy at launch and plans in place for an aggressive development plan at the beginning of the campaign, Alpine as a collective unit has talked up its prospects of an even stronger season.
Understandably, Gasly has appeared a rejuvenated figure since moving to a team with ambitions of competing for championships after growing frustrated increasingly last year.
With his chance of a redemption arc with Red Bull ruled out and AlphaTauri realistically never likely to be able to topple its championship-winning sister outfit, Gasly had effectively outgrown his previous team.
However, while there are plenty of positives to be viewed from his winter switch, there can be absolutely no guarantees that Gasly will thrive in his new surroundings.
While he performed amazingly well at Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri across his three-and-a-half year second spell there, question marks can be drawn over the calibre of team-mates he dispatched during his moderately successful stint with the Italian side.
Defeating every driver since his demotion may have enhanced his reputation, but defeating Brendon Hartley, a confidence-ridden Daniil Kvyat and an inexperienced Yuki Tsunoda is hardly a glittering resume, especially in comparison to other drivers.
That includes Ocon, who has a considerably stronger record in that department. The ex-Mercedes academy driver outpaced the respected Sergio Perez in his opening two full-time years before achieving a feat that many other drivers have failed to – except for Lewis Hamilton – in being extremely close to Alonso in every department.
Unsurprisingly, Ocon will therefore represent the biggest test of Gasly’s career since he was thoroughly destroyed by Max Verstappen.
The reignition of an old rivalry from karting will be a benchmark to how much Gasly has improved from the Red Bull days, when his adaptability and communication skills were also called into question.
Failure to perform and at least provide Ocon close company on the track could lead Gasly to end up in the same predicament Daniel Ricciardo found himself in as recently as last year, whereby he was discarded without much disagreement from most quarters.
Although Ricciardo’s plight occurred in slightly differing circumstances, the Australian left behind a front-running seat at Red Bull and never recovered to that position once his struggles at McLaren became abundantly more than a temporary matter.
Ricciardo provided proof that only so much time can be brought before credit in the bank for past performances completely dissolves.
If a nine-time race winner – who did succeed in a top team, unlike Gasly – fails to command a place on the grid, the Frenchman would surely be on thin ice if his Alpine adventure fails to deliver the results every party will be hopeful for.
The three-time podium finisher believes he is capable of fighting for frequent race wins and the coveted prize of a World Championship even after his failed stint at Red Bull.
A transfer up the order is a chance he’s been longing for and Alpine’s mismanagement of its driver roster has handed Gasly an F1 reprieve he can’t afford to waste – one that could be determined as a make-or-break move for his career.
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