FULL GAS

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

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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.

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