More musical chairs for Alpha Tauri?

On the first Sunday of September 2020, Gasly walked away from Monza — the Temple of Speed, the fastest major race track in the world — a Grand Prix winner.

Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly celebrates on the podium after winning the Italian GP. His astonishing victory was the first for a French driver since Olivier Panis won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix in far more dramatic fashion (only three cars finished that race).   -  Getty Images

A year ago, nearly to the day, it was a forlorn Pierre Gasly that to the Italian Grand Prix with Toro Rosso. Just a few weeks previously, Red Bull had unceremoniously demoted him after 12 races to its “junior” team. Gasly had failed to match the performance of his younger and more accomplished teammate, Max Verstappen.

On the first Sunday of September 2020, Gasly walked away from Monza — the Temple of Speed, the fastest major race track in the world — a Grand Prix winner, resurgent, revitalised and having raised the question of why he had been dropped from Red Bull in the first place.

In and out

Gasly made his debut for Toro Rosso as a replacement for Daniil Kvyat — his current teammate — in the latter third of the 2017 season. He didn’t score a point in the five races he took part in, but he was given a full-time drive for the next year. The Frenchman didn’t exactly light up the 2018 season; he finished 15th in the standings. But when Daniel Ricciardo announced his departure from Red Bull at the end of the year, the 29 points that Gasly accumulated — his teammate Brendon Hartley scored just four — were enough to secure a drive with Toro Rosso’s senior team for 2019.

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But Gasly’s promotion came with a rider: a teammate named Max Verstappen.

The best way to judge an F1 driver’s performance is to compare it with his teammate’s. It’s one thing to outdo a New Zealander who spent a little over one season in motorsport’s highest class; it’s something else altogether when your teammate holds nearly every “youngest ever” record in the sport.

Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia AlphaTauri prepares to drive in the garage during final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Tuscany.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Gasly performed steadily in the first half of 2019. He was the best of the rest, leading the midfield behind championship frontrunners Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, and teammate Verstappen. But while Gasly had nine points finishes in the first 12 races, with his best being fourth place at the British Grand Prix, Verstappen hadn’t finished below fifth, had five podiums, had won two races and had 181 points to Gasly’s 63.

The discrepancy in performance between the two Red Bull drivers couldn’t have been more stark at the 12th race of the 2019 season, the Hungarian Grand Prix. Verstappen took the first pole position of his career, and Gasly was expected to support him in his bid for the win. Instead, the French driver finished a lap down on his teammate, who was passed by Hamilton for the win.

Gasly was replaced in the mid-season break by Alexander Albon in a straight swap with Toro Rosso, the young British-Thai driver having delivered some strong drives in his brief F1 career.

“Pierre really needs to take some time out during the break, reflect, and take the lessons into the second part of the year,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner had said at the time about the decision.

Resurgence

Back in Toro Rosso, Gasly continued to steadily collect points, adding another 32 to the 63 he had scored till then in 2019 with Red Bull. But the highlight of his season — of his career, till that point — came at the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he fended off Hamilton in the closing stages of the race for second place. It was the first podium of Gasly’s career, and the 18 points moved him up to sixth place in the drivers’ standings ahead of — of all people — Albon.

Red Bull and Toro Rosso — now renamed Alpha Tauri — kept the same driver line-ups for the 2020 season, but the roles were now reversed for Gasly and Albon — both literally and figuratively.

Pierre Gasly of France driving the (10) Scuderia AlphaTauri AT01 Honda.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

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The difference between Red Bull’s Nos. 1 and 2 drivers this season is more or less the same as it was a year ago — Albon is on 48 points after eight races, while Verstappen is on 110. But what complicates matters for the Red Bull-Alpha Tauri combo is Gasly’s performance — the French driver has out-qualified Albon thrice in eight races, and he had 18 points to Alpha Tauri teammate Kvyat’s four before the Italian Grand Prix. About halfway through the 17-race season, Gasly is now on 43 points, just five behind Albon, who is in a car capable of winning races.

At the 2020 Italian GP, Hamilton and Bottas’s Mercedes locked out the front row in qualifying once more, with the former on pole and Verstappen starting on the third row. The six-time world champion had a clean getaway at the start, but Bottas dropped to sixth within two laps, with Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris in the McLarens and the Racing Points of Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll mixing it up at the front.

On lap 18, Kevin Magnussen parked his Haas near the pit lane entrance after suffering a power unit failure. The safety car was deployed, and the first driver to take advantage of the window of opportunity to pit was Gasly. By the time Hamilton came in for new tyres, the pit lane entry had been closed, but the Brit champion still came in. When racing resumed on lap 24, Hamilton led from Stroll and Gasly. But Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc lost control at Parabolica, crashed heavily into the barriers and brought out the safety car again, before the race was red-flagged.

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After a standing restart on lap 28, Hamilton was in the lead, but he had to serve a 10-second stop-go penalty for entering the pit lane when it was closed. Stroll — he had not pitted but was allowed to change tyres when the race was red-flagged, leapfrogging him ahead of several drivers — went wide on his cold rubber, giving Gasly second place, which soon became first. For the next 25 laps, Gasly initially held off Kimi Raikkonen in the Alfa Romeo and then Sainz, who closed in in the final stages but was unable to get his McLaren past the Alpha Tauri.

Meanwhile, further back in the field, Hamilton muscled his way from the back to finish seventh and retained his 43-point lead in the drivers’ championship. Bottas couldn’t improve on his fifth place at the restart but moved ahead of Verstappen — who retired on lap 30 — to second in the standings.

For viewers used to the Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari combination on the podium for nearly every race over the past five-six seasons, Monza provided a refreshing sight. It was for the first time since the 2012 Hungarian Grand Prix that none of the three teams featured on the podium, and it was the first win since the 2013 Australian GP — a memorable one for Raikkonen in a Lotus — for a team other than Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Gasly’s astonishing victory was the first for a French driver since Olivier Panis won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix in far more dramatic fashion (only three cars finished that race). It was the second win for the Toro Rosso/Alpha Tauri team, whose first victory came as unexpectedly in 2008 — on the same track, at the hands of a 21-year old Sebastian Vettel, who took pole and won in the rain.

The question now is whether Red Bull will make a mid-season change to its line-up in its bid to challenge Mercedes — the Austrian team, after all, dropped Kvyat after just five races of 2016 for Verstappen.