Although Toro Rosso is yet to confirm its line-up for next season, the consensus is that Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat will be sat in its Honda-powered cars for 2018.
The argument that one, or both, of these drivers, do not deserve a Formula 1 drive is a credible one, but circumstances should dictate that this is the line-up they will field.
For Kvyat, who has already been demoted by the powers at Red Bull twice in the last 20 months, to remain in F1 for a fifth season may seem counterproductive. His scoring record of five races out of 33 since rejoining Toro Rosso has been costly for a team that has been one of the top six in F1 of late.
Gasly’s scoring record since replacing Kvyat for the Malaysian Grand Prix has been zero in two, but it is what the Frenchman has been doing outside of his F1 drives that will earn him a likely ‘equal number one’ spot at the team for 2018.
Last year, Gasly became the first member of the Red Bull Junior Team to win the GP2 series title. Dr Helmut Marko, head of Red Bull’s young driver programme, does not often place drivers in F1’s primary feeder category, and between Vitantonio Liuzzi’s title triumph in GP2’s predecessor International F3000 and Gasly’s own triumph there were only six victories across 10 drivers.
Many can speculate as to why Dr Marko often shuns GP2 (now Formula 2) for his young drivers, but more often than not Red Bull juniors are either dropped before they reach GP2, or are promoted straight to F1 from categories such as World Series FV8 3.5 or GP3.
The fact that Gasly remained part of Red Bull’s young driver setup all the way to GP2, and then repaid that patience by becoming the first man to win the title in its colours, made him a top candidate for a 2017 seat at Toro Rosso.
That proved to not be the case, as Kvyat was resigned alongside Carlos Sainz Jr.
Although winning GP2 in his second year, with a team new to the series, was undoubtedly impressive, Gasly still ended the season with many doubts over his head.
A 1015 day winless streak while as a Red Bull junior meant that Gasly’s stock continued to drop as he progressed up the single-seater ladder, despite finishing successive rookie campaigns in World Series and GP2 in second and eighth.
As a reminder, Toro Rosso’s last graduate from GP2 was Sebastien Buemi, who finished eighth, and Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne were both handed drives after finishing second in World Series.
Gasly’s 2016 title campaign was not a dominant one either. Eight races into the season he was eighth in the points, and although he finally broke his win duck in the next race at Silverstone and took the points lead, he went into the final round of the season behind rookie team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi in the standings.
The Yas Marina circuit that held the championship decider favoured Gasly, and he ended the season as champion, although jobless for the upcoming year.
In January it was finally announced that Gasly would spend 2017 driving in the Japan-based Super Formula series.
Stoffel Vandoorne, his predecessor as GP2 champion, made the same move a year before, and his two wins put him fourth in the standings and earned him a Mclaren-Honda F1 drive for this year.
Vandoorne spent his sole season in the series at Dandelion Racing, while Gasly has been driving for Team Mugen. Both teams run the Mugen-supplied Honda HR-414E engine, which has been considered the weaker package in recent years.
Gasly and Vandoorne have overcome this deficit, and the former is odds-on to become the manufacturer’s first champion in the current era of the championship. Title success at Suzuka would also make the Frenchman the first rookie champion since Ralf Schumacher in 1996.
The symbolics of what Gasly could achieve at Suzuka this weekend is what will make him integral to the 2018 Toro Rosso team.
In Japan, as Mclaren has found out of late, learning from errors and making progression through your own methods is an integral part of the culture.
The idea of saving or preserving face, essentially prioritising one’s dignity in the face of a compromising situation, is also very important and is a strong motivator of employees of Japanese companies.
Honda’s F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa said he was “ashamed” and “disappointed” by the criticism that Fernando Alonso had been putting on the company since 2015.
Gasly’s career has had its ups and downs, and rather than being rushed to F1 he has been made to work on his deficiencies and overcome them.
Red Bull and more specifically Marko himself is known for the ruthlessness with which drivers are treated, and there is no holding back on publicly denouncing underperforming individuals.
This is a concept alien to Japan, but not to Gasly, who last October had to deal with the embarrassment of Marko denying to the press that the Frenchman would be driving for the team at the Singapore Grand Prix, prompted by comments made by Gasly himself.
Although Red Bull’s ‘make you or break you’ approach has produced results, there are equally as many casualties.
Mark Webber batted off the continuous criticism, but Daniil Kvyat’s rather bleak statement “Everyone has hard times. If you’re good, you come out of it, if you’re not good enough, you just die,” after his first demotion, last season shows this can be a counterproductive method of extracting performance.
In the fast-moving world of F1, there is no hiding when mistakes are made. Honda has had to deal with three years of poor results and an impatient Mclaren team publically revealing its weaknesses, although in the early days of the partnership the tone was less hostile.
The hierarchical style of management in Japan, in addition to the desire to do things ‘the Honda way’, has made every problem more difficult to overcome, as utilising specialist knowledge from lower status engineers in departments is often overlooked for solving problems at the top.
In other areas of motorsport Honda has also been slacking, and bar the continuous heroics of Marc Marquez in MotoGP, it is Super Formula where the manufacturer has recently been given the opportunity to save its face.
Of the eight drivers using the Honda engine in Super Formula, only two have finished a race in the top five. Gasly’s points tally of 33 is 10.5 points more than the seven others combined and is more than any Honda driver has achieved since Mugen team-mate Naoki Yamamoto’s won the title in 2013. That was only four more than Gasly’s current tally, and there are 18 points available for the Frenchman at the Suzuka finale.
Gasly has saved Honda’s face, preventing further public embarrassment on home turf where it is already the least attractive package in the Super GT series.
Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost has admitted that the team’s driver line-up for 2018 will consider requests from its partners, i.e. Honda, and unlike both company’s protegés in the junior formulae, Gasly has the results and the support of both parties.
Mclaren’s poor showings since 2015 has made Honda a public embarrassment, which can be seen a cultural offence, while Gasly’s race-winning run in Super Formula has held up the Honda product, an undoubted morale boost for the engineers in the factory.
Honda, therefore, has a pre-existing working relationship with Gasly and has data on just how good he is. Toro Rosso is set to receive huge culture shocks next year, and having an individual with experience of both sides will prove to be an asset, no matter how small.
With a new engine supplier and a driver still new to F1, the partnership will look for an experienced driver in the second car that can provide some continuity to proceedings.
Kvyat, who is coming to the end of his fourth season at the top level, would provide a great benchmark for Gasly to work off, and harsh though it may seem, is an easy scapegoat for when things go wrong.
This comes a long way from in 2013 when Kvyat was promoted to F1 over Antonio Felix da Costa because of his ability to overcome problems.
Brendon Hartley’s sudden and unexpected call-up for this weekend’s US Grand Prix may have altered the picture, but Toro Rosso is unlikely to sign a driver for 2018 who prior to this weekend has not raced a single-seater since 2012.
The Russian’s skills at developing a car are unknown, and it may be put to Gasly to do the hard development work.
Despite racing in Japan he has been based in Europe, so Red Bull can call him over to Milton Keynes at a minute’s notice to work on its simulator.
His input is highly valued and had Gasly not got his surprise call-up for the Malaysian GP he would have been part of the Red Bull family’s race plans regardless, albeit from the other side of the planet.
Gasly has picked up all the skills he needs to be in F1 now, including understanding the Pirelli tyres, and the importance of energy recovery from his one-off drive in Formula E for Renault e.dams.
He is a driver who carries a lot of speed into corners and pushes a lot on the tyres, hence his stunning rookie seasons in World Series and Super Formula where hard Michelin and Bridgestone tyres are used, and he has also shown on his two opportunities so far that the 2017 F1 regulations and tyres have not thrown him.
His sim work means he also knows of the 2018 concept, another crucial head start for the Pierre Gasly and Toro Rosso partnership.