Feature: Pierre ready to step on the gas

When Pierre Gasly emerged as a GP2 title contender in 2016 many expected him to slot in at Toro Rosso for 2017, but Red Bull made him wait, sent him to Japan, before finally giving him his Formula 1 chance late last year. Now he’s preparing for his first full season in the championship, and Motorsport Week caught up with the Frenchman to discuss his tumultuous journey so far.

It is a journey that began in his native Normandy at the turn of the millennium. The energetic six-year-old, the youngest member of a family immersed in motorsport, was taken to the kart circuit at Anneville-Ambourville in the Seine-lined forests a half-hour drive away from his home town, Rouen.

“It’s a track really not famous in Formula 1,” he jokes while gradually working his way through a bowl of pineapple chunks in Toro Rosso’s hospitality unit.

The path from karting to F1 has had ups and downs

“I went to the baby karts when I was six and I could not touch the pedals so we had to put foam everywhere! I could drive the kart and I did three laps just to have the first feeling and when I stopped I had a big smile on my face. I knew already I wanted to try it, and that’s what I wanted to do, and then after that I was like ‘yeah okay that’s what I need to do’, and I fell in love with it.”

Gasly is the youngest of five boys – he has two maternal step-brothers and two paternal step-brothers – but he was the only one who started young enough to pursue racing as a career.

“Out of the four, three raced in karting,” he explains of his brothers. “So it was really in our family, but they started pretty late; two of them started when they were like 18 or 19, and one started at 17, but it was too late in motorsports. I think they were decent, they went to national level but never to international. They are good when I play with them on a simulator… they are still a couple of seconds off but you can see they are good – actually they wanted to do it [play racing games] at the beginning but they don’t want [to play] any more as I beat them all the time!”

Upon realising that racing was to become his life, Gasly began competing seriously, gradually rising through the ranks, picking up trophies and accolades both on a national level and further afield. However, as with any aspiring racer, life at a track had to be balanced with education, and some of his teachers were not appreciative of his long-term ambition.

Gasly had to juggle school with racing

“At the beginning they didn’t believe me,” Gasly explains when karting was given as his reason for absence. “Also because you go karting in Italy and there’s sunshine outside, of course when you come back you are a bit more tanned than when you left! So the Profs were like ‘yeah you went for holidays’ and then on purpose they used to give me the exam of the lessons I had missed just because they didn’t believe me. It was a bit tough but I at least managed to get some decent marks.” As he entered his teenage years he realised that remaining where he was “wasn’t possible anymore; I had to go in a private school. The [French] Federation made a partnership with this private school in Le Mans, so I left home at 13 and went to live there from 13 to 18.”

When he ultimately reached Formula 1, nine years later, he received a handful of messages from some of those teachers; “there were some that supported me and some others were a bit more stupid, but some of them sent me messages saying ‘ah I saw that you managed to get there – so happy for you’; I guess at that time people don’t realise it’s [F1] a target and it’s what you want to achieve and when they see you it’s like ‘fuck he managed to do it!’”

Gasly’s time in karting meant he battled the likes of Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Charles Leclerc, with whom he was team-mates at SodiKart in 2010. “We were all growing together and now to be all together in Formula 1 is quite funny as I still remember these times like it was yesterday, it’s quite nice.” Gasly’s transition from karting to single-seaters came in 2011, competing in French F4, before a 2012 Formula Renault 2.0 campaign with R-ace GP yielded a handful of podiums. The next season was to be crucial.

Podiums, the runner-up spot, but no wins in 2014

“Basically 2013 was either win or stop,” Gasly says starkly. “I was lucky to find a Swiss guy who supported me and paid my season with Tech 1, and Tech 1 actually had been really nice and gave us a good deal. It was either ‘I will win the championship and get the prize money’, which I think was €500,000 to go into [Formula Renault] 3.5, or if I will have finished second it would have been zero [prize money], and I would have had to stop because this guy could not pay for crazy money, and for me actually on the financial side it was crucial. There was a lot of pressure that year but in the end it turned out really well, we were really competitive with Tech 1 and we managed to get the title.”

The title was also vital in securing a place on Red Bull’s prestigious junior scheme.  “I went to Abu Dhabi and I saw Helmut [Marko] who told me first that I didn’t do enough fastest laps! But no, he was happy that I won the championship and then after that I signed with them, so for me it was a big turning point in my career as I had much better support.”

The next three years turned out to be perplexing for any junior formula aficionado to fully understand. For the first two-and-a-half of them, in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2, Red Bull’s latest prospect was a regular front-runner, taking 15 podiums, five pole positions, and the runner-up spot in Renault’s series to fellow junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr. Yet a win remained elusive. Several opportunities to get the monkey off his back slipped through his fingers. It led to questions over his ability, and his long-term prospects.

GP2 debut came at Monza in 2014

“At that time I was 18, I arrived in 3.5 with much older guys who had a lot more experience.

“I think when you look back at it, I didn’t get the win, [but in] 2014 I had six second positions, all the time we missed by like five seconds… I could have got the win; it was just lacking little things, but not massively… DAMS was really strong with Carlos that year, so it was quite tough.

“Then I went to GP2, which with the Pirelli tyres was really tough. I was the second-best qualifier that year, so on one lap I could be fast. But with the tyre degradation… I’ve always been aggressive with the tyres, so I struggled quite a lot with that and DAMS [did as well], as Alex [Lynn], who was really good on tyre management struggled quite a bit as well.

“Of course it was not easy; in the end the overall result was really positive but everyone was talking about ‘ah he’s missing that win, he’s missing that win’, which for me as a racer what you want is to fight for pole positions and wins, I just kept pushing and knew that for me it was good experience: 2014 was a rookie season, with new things to learn, 2015 was a rookie season again, then in 2016 you can really feel the extra experience,  which is beneficial just to put everything together.”

Winless streak finally came to an end mid-2016

Gasly joined Prema – new to GP2 but with supreme F3 results – for 2016 and finally ended his winless streak mid-season at Silverstone, just days after he was involved in a serious road traffic accident that injured his mother. Further wins followed, but there was a disqualification at Hockenheim, while a Safety Car deployment error that robbed him of victory at Monza (and handed it to team-mate and title rival Antonio Giovinazzi) left him seething. He bounced back to win the crown, but was overlooked for 2017 by Red Bull as it kept Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.

“Honestly I could write a book about my GP2 season! There had been so many things happening. It’s quite funny as when I used to talk with my trainer they used to say that there are too many things happening in my life on the personal side and it’s just a fucking rollercoaster emotionally!

“I just tried to stay focused on the target, that’s what we thought, the best we can do is give our best all the time and I really believed I can deliver, and if we kept pushing and did the right things and got the result, at some point it has to come.

“I believe in justice and all this shit, so I knew at some point there was something coming.

Gasly clinched the GP2 title, but F1 had to wait

“At the end of the season in GP2 it was really good [to win the title] but of course it was frustrating as when you win in GP2 the next step is Formula 1, so you don’t want to wait there, like in football if you win the second league you go into the first league. It was frustrating and quite tough as we know in Formula 1 the results are not the only factor that can give you the seat, with money I could have got one in 2017, but I didn’t have any, and I had to wait for 10 months, whatever, until the Malaysian GP. But that’s what they [Red Bull] told me – you’re in the right place, but just the wrong time. I just kept pushing and I knew that ‘ah okay at some point it will come’.”

Gasly’s initial foray into Formula 1 – having come oh-so-close to the Super Formula title during his season in Japan – was blighted by Renault’s end-of-year reliability dramas, but for 2018, with Honda, the outlook is brighter, with optimism flowing through Gasly and the Toro Rosso team.

“I’m super excited,” he beams. “I think it’s a great challenge with Honda and Toro Rosso as we are not a customer anymore.

“We really feel that Honda is pushing massively to improve, and pushing the team on their side to give the best car possible, to have the best package we can for the year.

“You can feel there is a great atmosphere compared to when I got in the car last year and we had all these engine issues.

“There is a lot of positive energy ad everyone is working towards the same goal.

“I think it’s going to be tight with all the midfield teams but I’m super excited for my first Formula 1 season and I’m ready to give everything.”