'Prove Them Wrong': Pierre Gasly, Unofficial Champion of 2020
2020 has been a year of madness, from our everyday lives to within the sporting world. Formula 1 was the first international sport to get back up and running after the first Grand Prix in Australia was cancelled, followed by a domino effect of cancellations on the calendar. Lewis Hamilton was crowned Formula 1 World Champion for the seventh time at the Turkish Grand Prix – what an achievement. However, I wanted to explore something else, someone else… the Unofficial Champion of 2020.
Pierre Gasly. Born and raised in Rouen, a city in northern France, the twenty-four-year-old is currently driving for Scuderia AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso), Red Bull’s junior team. After a successful junior career in karting followed by single seater categories, and even a stint in the Japanese Super Formula, Gasly found himself in a Toro Rosso F1 seat at the end of the 2017 season. He drove for the team at five events, before becoming a full-time driver for the team in 2018. In only three years, he’s experienced the lowest of lows and the highest of highs in the pinnacle of global motorsport. It truly does resemble a rollercoaster ride - however, 2020 has been a season of the highest of highs - including that all important milestone: the very first Formula 1 race win.
Pierre’s promotion to Aston Martin Red Bull Racing was announced in August 2018 and through the entire F1 community, excitement prevailed. With Daniel Ricciardo moving to Renault, the second seat at Red Bull was given to Pierre, who, when considering all of his results from his time in F1 and prior to that, deserved it. The whole prospect was promising. However, Pierre’s time with the team was cut short in 2019.
In Australia, the first race of the 2019 Formula 1 season, Gasly finished in P11, eight places behind his teammate Max Verstappen, who took the final spot on the podium after finishing third. It was a new atmosphere for Gasly, a totally different environment to what he was used to at junior team Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). Arguably, the time to get used to the car and the team is needed for any driver moving to a team in which they’ve never worked before. Red Bull Racing finished the 2018 season third in the Constructors’ Standings, compared to a disappointing ninth for Scuderia Toro Rosso, where Pierre spent his season partnering Brendon Hartley. That’s the thing – of course, Pierre was capable of making that jump from junior team to main team – he scored the majority of points for Toro Rosso in 2018, collecting twenty-nine points over Hartley’s four. He would never have been considered to move to Red Bull and help actively fight for the Championship if he wasn’t seen as being good enough. He definitely is good enough, although, he faced struggles during his time with Red Bull which didn’t completely reflect his talent, definitely in my opinion anyway.
Gasly’s best finish with Red Bull Racing came at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix weekend. He finished fourth, with Verstappen finishing in fifth – at that point, I suppose, all hope was not lost.
Pierre Gasly was dropped by Red Bull come the 2019 summer break, after bringing in 63 points for the team and sitting comfortably in P6 in the Drivers’ Championship. According to Team Principal Christian Horner, the intention was to keep Gasly in the Red Bull seat. It didn’t happen. For the Belgium Grand Prix and all races following, Gasly was demoted back to the junior team, swapping with Alexander Albon, who was promoted to the Red Bull seat as their driver to partner, and challenge, Max Verstappen. In regards to the demotion, Horner claimed that Gasly ‘struggled with pressure’, which led them to put him back in one of the two junior seats to ‘spare the driver from the pressures of racing against Max Verstappen’. There were many a time where Gasly described how he was shocked to hear of the news about his demotion, because he was told he would maintain his seat with Red Bull until the end of the 2019 season.
After his demotion, fellow Frenchman and Formula 2 driver at the time, Anthoine Hubert, sent a simple text message to his friend, telling him to ‘prove them wrong’. As best friends who studied together and lived together, with their friendship dating back to their younger karting days, Pierre was always going to listen and accept Hubert’s words of encouragement. First race back after the summer break and subsequently, Pierre’s demotion – Belgium. The Formula 2 Feature Race began after F1 Qualifying and it was suspended on the second lap after an accident involving Giuliano Alesi (Trident), Juan Manuel Correa (Charouz) and Anthoine Hubert (BWT Arden).
The minutes and hours after the incident felt like a lifetime for all those involved in Formula 1. Alesi was unharmed, Correa suffered a spinal injury and fractured bones, but sadly, Hubert succumbed to his injuries which were fatal, and he died after the incident. It truly was a heart-breaking chain of events, impacting more drivers than those in Formula 2 who raced against Hubert. Drivers, personnel and fans alike were all impacted by such a dramatic incident with an absolutely devastating outcome.
The F1 race went ahead the following day, with the F2 Sprint Race cancelled out of respect. Pierre's first race back with Toro Rosso, and one he described as “the most emotional race I ever had” and rightly so. With Charles Leclerc, another of Gasly and Hubert’s lifelong friends, starting from Pole for Sunday’s race, Pierre told him prior – “please win this race for Anthoine”. He did exactly that – the mood was sombre, especially for a first Formula 1 win, but Leclerc proudly dedicated his win to his late friend, Anthoine Hubert. We’ve seen plenty of heartfelt tributes to Anthoine in races since his death in the form of helmet designs among others. Pierre unveiled an absolutely beautiful helmet tribute in Belgium this year, the one-year anniversary of Hubert’s accident and passing.
After a devastating beginning to his time back with Toro Rosso, Pierre’s season improved, especially when the penultimate round of the 2019 season rolled round. After a photo finish with Hamilton when crossing the line, Gasly stood on the podium for the first time in his F1 career in second place. He started sixth on the grid with a Qualifying time of 1:08.837 and during the race, his pace suggested a P7 finish at least. With two safety cars throughout, Gasly was passed on the second restart, yet after Hamilton collided with Albon,Pierre found himself in second place, behind Max Verstappen. As he called it, 'the best day of my life'. He crossed the line in second with the miniscule 0.062 second gap between him and the reigning World Champion. It was a moment which would go down in history, for Pierre, as his first Formula 1 podium, but also for engine supplier Honda, who finished 1-2 for the first time since 1991. Pierre's finish is the best for a French driver since Romain Grosjean at the United States Grand Prix in 2013 and is the twenty-second French podium in history.
This finish was his best ever and it was only a sign of positivity for him and the team, especially after a difficult start to the year with Red Bull. Arguably, the start of his redemption and his time to prove that he was, and still is, one of the best current young drivers on the grid. 2019 was always going to be somewhat difficult for Pierre, especially when going up alongside Max Verstappen, and I think the majority, if not everyone, would agree with me on that. It leaves us asking, was Pierre Gasly really ready for the promotion? Yes – he would never have been considered if there was no hope there. Of course, Formula 1 is a business as well as it is a sport, and it seems that without his promotion to Red Bull, that redemption would have never been necessary, or never even come about. Did working in such a top team fuel him to push harder back in the Toro Rosso? Was that determination to push and prove them wrong what put him on the second step of the podium?
Without a doubt, his redemption continued, rolling over into 2020, and we currently find ourselves at the final race weekend of the season.
Now Scuderia AlphaTauri, Pierre has been with the team for the entirety of the chaotic 2020 season, alongside Daniil Kvyat, his teammate also for the second half of last year. With no driver changes for this season, the clear motivation for the team was to push for podiums again, since it was very much possible after Pierre’s podium in Brazil, plus one Daniil achieved in Germany (2019) after a chaotic wet race at Hockenheim.
We turn our attention to Monza, the first of three race events in Italy, and AlphaTauri’s home race as an Italian team based in Faenza. A race filled with chaos from lights out to chequered flag. Hamilton was given a ten second stop-go penalty for entering a closed pit lane and Stroll went wide at the Roggia Chicane after a red flag standing restart. Gasly took the race lead, with McLaren’s Carlos Sainz following closely behind him.
When Pierre crossed the line in P1, everybody was ecstatic. The atmosphere, even from home, seemed to be absolutely electric. It was so obvious to see how much it meant to Pierre, to have his first ever Formula 1 win, and definitely the first of many more to come. Joined by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in second and Racing Point’s Lance Stroll in third, the result marked the first time we’d seen a podium without Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari since 2012. In an interview for The Official Formula 1 Magazine, Pierre looked back to his podium in Brazil, about which he said, “I would’ve loved for that moment to have lasted even longer”, which is why, when he won in Monza, he said, “I just wanted to stay there. I wanted to enjoy every second of it.” And rightly so.
An amazing drive, with an even better result, and his redemption was seemingly right where he wanted it to be. After such a difficult year, with his demotion back to Toro Rosso and the loss of his lifelong best friend, his win was totally deserved. His win helped him to do exactly what Anthoine told him to do – prove them wrong.
AlphaTauri move into the final race weekend of the 2020 season with a total of 103 points, a collective gained by both Gasly and Kvyat. Only three points behind tenth in the Drivers’ Championship, Gasly sits comfortably with seventy-one points to his name. As a seemingly midfield team, it’s not a bad effort for AlphaTauri at all. With nine top ten finishes across sixteen races, Pierre has had a successful season. His popularity has sky-rocketed with fans (and even teams… Alpine [Renault] drive in 2022?), and as it should – it’s so well deserved. His comeback has been, in my eyes, the best we’ve seen all year. There’s probably a little bit of bias there, I suppose.
Pierre’s talent is unmatched. Really, he is amazing. Watching the podium ceremony from home and watching his reaction plus how the team savoured every single moment of that victory, just showed how much it meant to everyone. For Pierre, hearing the French anthem and for the team, hearing that Italian anthem on the top step of the podium must’ve been a pretty good feeling. Afterwards, we discovered that Pierre received a voicemail from French President, Emmanuel Macron, about which he said, “it was very touching and it was so special to hear those words from the President.” The whole experience is so touching to hear about, after 2019, which was a difficult year for Pierre, to 2020, one which, I hope, has completely lifted his spirits and how he views himself and his talent.
At the end of October, AlphaTauri announced the news we were all waiting and hoping for, especially after rumours surfacing about Gasly heading back to Red Bull. They confirmed that he had signed for the team for 2021 and that they would continue their partnership. together. We’re all hoping they can manage another win, with plenty of podiums, but the field is going to be tight next year. Exciting, nonetheless.
Yet, I do see him as the Unofficial Champion of 2020. Of course, everyone has their own opinion and there are plenty of drivers who could also be the Unofficial Champion – I could list a few – but, I truly think that Pierre really has endured such a period of redemption that highlights why he deserves a Formula 1 seat. The young, fresh talent is becoming more prominent in Formula 1 and one day, after some of the greats retire, the younger field are the ones we will look at for entertainment and entertainment.
Pierre Gasly proved them wrong.
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Photo Credit: Pierre Gasly on Twitter