Following an impressive debut Formula 1 season so far, Pierre Gasly could be about to earn a promotion from Toro Rosso to sister team Red Bull.
Almost a year ago, Read Motorsport published a piece on why former GP2 champion Gasly would be Toro Rosso’s greatest asset this season and after several headline results have been coupled with a largely mistake-free year the Frenchman has lived up to that tag and has proven to be the one component the team cannot cope without.
Technical director James Key has been heavily rumoured to leave, with McLaren going as far as announcing they had signed Key last month despite no such deal being in place. Gasly’s team-mate Brendon Hartley could lose his seat at Toro Rosso after a tricky debut season.
Daniel Ricciardo’s unexpected departure from Red Bull to Renault has left the soon to be Honda-powered team with a need for a driver with experience of the Japanese manufacturer. The circumstances are remarkably similar to 2017, where Carlos Sainz Jr made the move to Renault from Toro Rosso, and Gasly was recalled from his stint in Super Formula to take his place.
Toro Rosso is a low pressure proving ground in F1, despite the imposing presence of young driver programme supremo Dr Helmut Marko. Drivers are rarely fighting for anything more than occasional points finishes.
The team looks unlikely to beat its 2017 tally of 53 points, even if the rumoured replacement of Hartley by highly rated McLaren reserve Lando Norris does take place late in the season, and both of its drivers have retired form races three times this year.
Gasly has only appeared in the points three times compared to Hartley’s two but has outscored his team-mate by 26 points. You’re only as good as your last race, and for Gasly that meant sixth place, or winner of F1’s ‘Class B’.
The key to Gasly’s strong results, which also includes a fourth at Bahrain and a seventh at Monaco, is that his management of the tyres has improved to a level where he is surpassing what is expected from his machinery.
At Monaco and Hungary, two tracks similar in their demands on the car, Gasly ran a longer opening stint on the softer tyre that was unmatched by his midfield rivals. Rewind two years and this was a skill beyond Gasly in his GP2 title-winning season. With hindsight, it is, therefore, no surprise that the Frenchman didn’t immediately get an F1 drive the following year.
But with the rate of learning that Gasly has shown, including his understanding of Japanese culture in his 18 months working with Honda, it is scary to think what he’s capable of next, and it will only be harmful for both parties if Red Bull holds Gasly back in Toro Rosso for another season.
Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost has faith in Gasly, and more importantly Honda’s engines.
Upgrades have proven to be effective, and the working cultures of the two organisations have not clashed, at least not to public knowledge, unlike the continuous blame game that took place when McLaren had a Honda supply.
With multiple drivers already tied down for 2019, and many others who aren’t at a calibre to be considered for a Red Bull seat, Gasly only has two realistic rivals for one of the most coveted seats in F1.
Carlos Sainz Jr, now without a seat thanks to Ricciardo’s move to Renault, has an option in his contract that runs out next month stipulating that the Red Bull mother team can take the Spaniard back. Sainz will be hoping they exercise that option, but only if that doesn’t end up with him actually returning to the B-team at Toro Rosso.
It’s a risk he’ll have to consider, and other teams have already shown interest in his services for next year. Another stumbling block is his relationship with Max Verstappen, which soured during their time together at Toro Rosso.
Red Bull would rather avoid a repeat of the frostiness they have had on occasion between Verstappen and Ricciardo, and previously Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and Sainz has been outperformed this year by Renault team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.
It’s another Spaniard who’s being heralded as the other potential Red Bull driver: two-time F1 world champion, Le Mans 24 Hours winner and current McLaren driver Fernando Alonso.
Alonso has spent over a decade chasing a third title in F1, and a move to Red Bull would be the last chance for the 37-year-old.
He’s capable of putting a suboptimal car into title contention, but it is well known in the last few years his attentions have been elsewhere when his McLaren car hasn’t been competitive. If the 2019 Red Bull car isn’t up to scratch, there will be limited time until Alonso’s time in F1 really is up.