Toro Rosso rookie Pierre Gasly is the latest in a stellar line-up of speedy French pedallers to reach F1. We caught up with him on his debut in Sepang
In the murk of the Sepang paddock, Pierre Gasly’s white cap is illuminated by the glare of a TV camera’s spotlight. He’s just finished his first day’s running at a GP weekend and is the apple of the media’s eye. Five days earlier, racing in the Super Formula series at Sugo in northern Japan, he took his third successive podium and then received a life-changing text message. He was told to prepare for his Toro Rosso debut.
Seconds later, on the other side of the world, Daniil Kvyat received a rather less welcome call from Dr Helmut Marko, head of Red Bull’s young driver programme, who told Daniil not to bother checking in for his flight to Kuala Lumpur. For the second time in two years, Kvyat found himself demoted.
Fast-forward to Malaysia and Gasly is expressing his delight at being given his F1 debut – although he feels sympathy for his predecessor. “It’s not what I wish on someone who is a friend, who I’ve known for many years,” says Gasly. “We raced in karting together in 2009, so it’s been a while since I’ve known him. It’s never nice and it’s a tough situation for him. He’s a talented guy, he’s been quick and he’s still quick.”
The tough-love script of the Red Bull young driver programme dictates that underperformance equals exit. Ahead of Malaysia, Kvyat had scored just four points to team-mate Carlos Sainz’s 48. With Sainz Renaultbound, Toro Rosso were keen to assess Gasly against a strong competitor, hence their decision to fast-track him. The plan for the rest of 2017 isn’t finalised, but it would be logical for the evaluation to continue before awarding him a full-time 2018 race seat.
“All I knew was that I would drive at Sepang and Suzuka,” says Gasly. “I’ve done tests and many laps in the simulator, but I don’t know what will happen next year. I need to take everything step by step.”
Gasly’s Super Formula campaign follows on from his title-winning GP2 season last year. Previously he’d competed in Formula Renault 3.5, where he was second to Sainz in 2014, and was Formula Renault champion in 2013, finishing ahead of Oliver Rowland and Esteban Ocon. Indeed, it was Ocon who inspired him to try racing. Gasly was born in Rouen and Ocon in Évreux, 30 miles to the south, and their parents were friends.
“Yes, we lived half an hour from each other and we’ve known each other since we were seven,” says Gasly. “It’s funny to be racing each other in F1 now because I still remember the days when we were karting together.
“I remember one December when it was snowing heavily. We were only about eight and we did three or four laps, but it was so cold we huddled in the truck to try to get warm. Then we went back out on slicks and did five more laps. At that time we dreamt about F1, but when you’re eight the road is still so long. So it’s crazy that we’re on the same track today, racing F1 cars.”
Renault is back as a works team, the French GP returns for 2018 at Paul Ricard, and Gasly looks set to join a roster of French racers that includes Romain Grosjean, Ocon and possibly the Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc (looking to break into the sport with Sauber). “I think it’s amazing for the French people,” says Gasly. “I used to race against not only Esteban but also Charles in minikarts, so to imagine we might all be racing together in F1 is something very special.”
Like Ocon, Gasly is approachable, good-humoured and modest. Quick, too. He qualified one place and 0.156s behind Sainz in P15, and finished the race in 14th, despite a problem with his drinks bottle and backache caused by a loose seat. For a rookie to do so well in the most physically demanding race of the year, surely validates the temporary driver-swap decision. So did it get him the thumbs-up from Dr Marko? “He was smiling, so that’s positive,” says Gasly. For now, that’ll do.