Pierre Gasly has arguably been one of the unsung heroes of the 2021 F1 season thus far. The Frenchman has put in some strong qualifying performances for AlphaTauri, without getting as much reward in the races as he deserves.
His luck turned in Monaco where he put in a solid race to earn sixth place, having safely kept Lewis Hamilton behind him for the whole race.
The downside was that he was jumped on strategy at the stops by both Sebastian Vettel (only just!) and Sergio Perez. Nevertheless sixth still represented a solid chunk of points for the Frenchman, especially as hitherto slow corners had not been a strength of the Faenza car.
AlphaTauri’s target this year has to be to beat Aston Martin and Alpine, and mix it with McLaren and Ferrari when circumstances allow. Gasly currently lies ninth in the World Championship, a place ahead of where he finished in 2020. Improving on that over the full season won’t be easy. He has to grab points where he can – and a typical race of survival in Baku this weekend could provide an opportunity.
He has certainly carried over the momentum he built up in 2020, when he outperformed team-mate Dany Kvyat and scored a memorable opportunistic win at Monza.
Despite that strong form he was never seriously considered for the Red Bull seat alongside Max Verstappen that ultimately went to Perez – in essence Christian Horner believes that he had his chance in 2019, before he was turfed out to make way for Alex Albon.
However it was a no-brainer to give him another year at AlphaTauri, in order to provide some continuity and serve as both a benchmark and teacher for rookie Yuki Tsunoda.
It’s not been an easy start for Tsunoda, who has shown some signs of the great talent that Helmut Marko and others believe he has, but has made the inevitable mistakes. The Japanese youngster’s stated target is to beat his team-mate, something that he’s struggled to do thus far.
Gasly got his 2021 season off to a great start in Bahrain by qualifying fifth, although his day was ruined by first lap contact with Daniel Ricciardo. He repeated that qualifying performance in Imola, although again things went wrong on race day after the team made a disastrous call on tyres, starting both cars on full wets. Despite that handicap he showed typical tenacity in fighting his way back to seventh, and a decent helping of points.
Portugal was a poor weekend for the team, as the car didn’t like the slow corners in Portimao, but Gasly still started ninth and logged a point in 10th. In Spain the car was again not at its best, and he made a silly mistake at the start, parking his car over the line and thus getting a penalty. However he still managed to earn another point for 10th.
“I was sandwiched in between a four-time World Champion and a seven-time World Champion”
He thus went to Monaco determined to make amends, and to return to the strong one-lap form he’d shown at the first couple of races.
“Clearly the goal for us will be to have a strong weekend,” he said before action got underway. “I think the first two weekends were definitely better than we expected. But we showed some really good performance. And the last two objectively were very tough, Portimao, and also Barcelona, we just made it to the points but in 10th position.
“I think Alpine clearly made a big step forward. McLaren and Ferrari are still there, and also improving on their side, and we probably didn’t improve as much.”
Gasly was quick throughout the weekend, and sixth on the grid was a solid reward, and he overcame that slow corner weakness: “It’s a different track and the car operates in a very different way than usual, so in the end it’s all about the limit, playing as much as you can with the walls, being very tidy, and the lap was very strong, so I was pleased with that.
The race was all about staying out of trouble, and he finished it in good company, behind Vettel and ahead of Hamilton.
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“I must say I was sandwiched in between a four-time World Champion and a seven-time World Champion,” he said after the flag. “So there are worst days! I’m pleased with the weekend as a whole, because it was the best qualifying of the year, with the sixth position. Very good lap yesterday. And today we managed to score some big points.”
Gasly and his team did a good job to stay ahead of Hamilton during the stop sequence, much to the annoyance of the Mercedes driver.
“It wasn’t an easy one, with Lewis right behind us. They put some pressure on us when they boxed, and we had to cover the next lap. At the same time, we gave a free track to Seb and Sergio. And I think today the over-cut was working quite well, because the warm-up on the hard was was very difficult. Nevertheless it was still a very strong performance, I think from our side.”
His biggest frustration was losing out to Vettel in a spectacular drag race up the hill from Ste Devote after the Aston Martin driver emerged from his stop.
It seems unlikely that he will ever get his second shot at Red Bull
“It was either I put us both in the harbour, or he was P5 and I was P6. I would rather score eight points than zero. Going up the hill, it’s not really straight. If the car is two metres, he gave me two metres and two centimetres, so I could make it up the hill. I started to go in the marbles, side-by-side with him, and I couldn’t brake as late into Turn Three.
“The thing is I think I missed maybe five-tenths of a second going up the hill because I was side-by-side with him, if I was five-tenths faster, it would have been better. And in the out lap I had Lewis right behind, I had to defend. Very poor grip, we struggled with the out laps all weekend. So it’s something we need to review. And we had a blue flag, lost a bit of time there.”
It was a typical businesslike drive from Gasly, who continues to get the job done, without attracting too much attention.
“We kept one Mercedes behind, which is a very strong performance from us. We finished in front of the Alpines, and in front of some fast cars. It’s important for us, for the championship. I think looking at our performance in the last two races we dropped back, I think clearly this weekend, we performed even better than what we expected.
“So that’s a very strong performance. There are still things we can do better, which I will try to do in Baku, but I’m pleased for the team.”
Team boss Franz Tost is happy: “I hope that Portimao and Barcelona are something which will not happen any more. He is showing a good performance, and I hope that when we can improve the car, and then he is there.”
At 25, and in his fourth full season, he is still getting better. Meanwhile a question mark hangs over Gasly’s longer-term future. It seems unlikely that he will ever get his second shot at RBR – we can probably assume that Perez will do enough to secure the seat for 2022, and Tsunoda is the next youngster in line should RBR have a vacancy.
So to make real progress, Gasly will have to go elsewhere. But where? Alpine remains a talked-about option for obvious reasons of nationality. However Esteban Ocon has been going well of late, so don’t expect him to be moved out. Indeed it’s hard to see any better seats opening up for Gasly – he’s stuck in a no man’s land, highly respected up and down the pitlane, but not right at the top of anyone’s wish list.
“We’re not looking at any drivers for next year,” Alpine boss Laurent Rossi noted in Monaco. “At the moment I am considering Esteban, as we mentioned earlier on. Fernando is here next year with us. If we want to carry on with the momentum we have we will do that. Pierre is obviously a great driver of value but at the moment this is not on the cards, I would say.”
In the meantime, AlphaTauri is not a bad place to be, as the team could well beat Alpine over the course of this season anyway.
Gasly’s presence is part of a repositioning of the team as a contender in its own right, and not just as a staging post for youngsters on the way to RBR. However, how the team’s form unfolds under the new 2022 rules, but without works Honda support beyond this year, remains to be seen – the changes represent both risk and opportunity for Gasly and his team.