Feature: The rise, fall, and rise of Pierre Gasly
Pierre Gasly faced career oblivion after a wretched spell with Red Bull Racing but was rejuvenated upon returning to Toro Rosso mid-2019. Motorsport Week sits down for an in-depth chat with the Frenchman on his season.
In terms of rollercoasters and narrative-sculpting in Formula 1 Pierre Gasly’s 2019 season is certainly up there.
Having started the year with Red Bull Racing a sequence of setbacks and subdued displays persuaded senior chiefs to enact a demotion mid-season, returning to Toro Rosso for nine events, in which he began to rebuild his shattered reputation, the pinnacle of which was a shock podium result.
Red Bull expected to enter 2019 with a line-up of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian took the team by surprise in moving to Renault, prompting Red Bull to pluck Gasly from Toro Rosso earlier than anticipated. Gasly had impressed at points in his first full season, most notably in Bahrain, Monaco and Hungary, though his inexperience meant expectations were consequently lowered. But not that low.
Even in a worst-case scenario Red Bull could not have envisaged some of the lowest moments as Gasly struggled to mould his driving style to the RB15, the early season model of which was not easy to drive, accentuated by its narrow operating window. Two hefty pre-season crashes – which also hindered the team’s preparation – set the tone for a 12-race spell in which Gasly scored only 63 points, trailed Verstappen regularly, and was often dragged back into the midfield fight. There were a few brief glimmers of hope but much of the first half of the campaign was spent chasing circles and getting sucked into a spiral of frustration.
Gasly departed the pre-summer break Hungarian Grand Prix having been assured his seat was safe. Red Bull publicly towed the same line. Eight days later he received a bombshell phone call in which it was curtly explained that his Red Bull Racing seat would be handed to Alexander Albon, and that he would see out 2019 with Toro Rosso.
“Of course when I got the news I was really shocked and kind of angry,” says Gasly.
“I don’t feel it was fair, because these first six months were nowhere near what we should have shown.”
That passion, though, showed the fire still burned within Gasly to prove his doubters wrong, as opposed to being burnt out by the experience.
“Yeah exactly, you do care, because you want to be in the fastest car,” he says on the emotion of anger. “And I’ve tried to make changes in my way, and I’ve been promised things that in the end didn’t happen. There were many things that didn’t go in the right way.
“But at the end of the day this was the situation, it was done, it was passed, I couldn’t change it.
“I thought, okay, I have these nine races where I’m going to show my skills, my speed, my consistency, the things I’ve shown since I started single-seaters until I got to Red Bull.
“I’ve been fast in every season in every car in every different category,” he says, hitting his hand on the table at each ‘every’ to emphasise the point. “And these six months [were the] only six months of my career where things didn’t go right.
“Suddenly everyone questions ‘ah does he know how to brake, does he know how to turn the wheel’ and all these things, and all these silly things that comment because the information stays confidential within the team.
“It was like, okay, now I’m going to work harder than ever to prove this point and for these nine races I want to be at the best level ever without changing anything, still keeping the same approach I had at the beginning of the year, but just making sure I’m on top of the game every session."
Gasly is understandably reluctant to expand too much on the details of his Red Bull calamity but hints at “different problems” that meant “we could not show the full potential that we had.” It is clear that he has made copious notes and internal remarks on what went wrong, but wants to keep that – justifiably – confidential.
Gasly re-aligned with Toro Rosso at the Belgian Grand Prix, though an added complication – along with adjusting to a different car – was that he was not with the same group of engineers as in 2018. Gasly replaced Albon, who had taken 2018 racer Brendon Hartley’s side of the garage, with Daniil Kvyat using Gasly’s old crew.
“The workload was a bit bigger because based on these new people, we were just trying to learn as fast as possible for each other,” he explains. “[We have to] understand the right information, each person and race engineer has their own way [of communicating] as much as drivers. We may talk about the same thing but it’s said in different ways. For them to really understand what you need and require from the car to go faster, mainly in that aspect we had to spend more time at the beginning.”
Gasly hit the ground running with ninth in Belgium and followed it up with eighth in Singapore, seventh in Japan, and ninth in Mexico, largely out-performing team-mate Daniil Kvyat. A likely top 10 finish was also lost in Italy when he was caught up in the Sebastian Vettel/Lance Stroll mess at Ascari. But it was in Brazil where he starred and reaped the rewards as others faltered. Gasly led the midfield group, and comfortably so, throughout the race, and vaulted into second as the front-runners encountered various setbacks. A thrilling duel to the line against Lewis Hamilton sealed Gasly’s runner-up spot, fittingly to erstwhile team-mate Verstappen, and ensured a redemption of sorts after his demotion.
“Straight after you don’t realise [what has happened], you’re just enjoying a different dimension because the excitement was so big, being with the team was really enjoyable,” says Gasly, whose post-race radio message almost broke the sound barrier.
“I flew back the same night from Brazil to France and when I landed that’s probably when I realised.
“I switched on the phone and my phone got blocked because I couldn’t open anything [due to the number of messages].
“As I opened [the phone] after 11 hours of flight mode it was blocked, I arrived at the airport, and [saw] all the magazines, all the news, I realised a little bit like ‘something really happened’.
“And to be on the front page of L’Equipe was something. I’ve read L’Equipe since I was little, just to read all the news for F1, soccer, rugby, basketball, and this was pretty strange to see my face on the front page there!”
Gasly will remain with the re-named Alpha Tauri team into 2020 and is ready for a relax and reset in the off-season (along with a house move from Bologna to Milan) after a whirlwind 12 months.
“I was with some friends and they were like ‘your year has been like a Hollywood movie, a movie you think it can’t be true, there are too many things that happened to be true’,” he jokes.
“And that’s a bit the way I feel it as well.
“I just went through all sorts of emotions and feelings, from frustration to anger, to one of the saddest moments of my life at Spa with Anthoine [Hubert] and then two months later to one of the happiest moments of my life with the first podium in F1.
“It’s just like such a roller-coaster but at the same time I’ve learned a lot from these situations on a personal level but also as a driver.
“In the end it was only my second season in F1 so there’s still a lot of things you discover and experience.”
And if Gasly can maintain his form into the new Alpha Tauri chapter than there's every reason to believe a top seat could come calling again in 2021...