For the last hour of the 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton, the greatest F1 driver of all time, was stuck behind Pierre Gasly. Hamilton poked and prodded and nudged the air between his Mercedes and the AlphaTauri, but at Imola, the famously unforgiving Italian circuit with treacherous grass runoff areas and concrete walls, overtaking is tricky at the best of times. In the damp, gloomy conditions this year, there was no room for error.
“It was intense for me to keep Lewis, with that Mercedes, behind for like 40 laps, seeing his eyes in my mirrors,” Gasly said.
But for all Hamilton’s efforts, the opening never emerged. Gasly hit every apex and braking point, and even Hamilton couldn’t conjure enough magic to force the issue.
Gasly is no stranger to stout defense. Some 20 months ago and three hours up the autostrada, the young Frenchman had a historic day at the Italian Grand Prix. Twenty-nine laps, a midrace red flag and chaotic restart in, he unexpectedly found himself in the lead. Carlos Sainz, in a faster McLaren, lurked behind from the restart to the checkered flag but couldn’t find a way past him, and Gasly held on for a career-making win.
When Gasly repeated the trick on Hamilton at Imola, though, there was no victory at stake—nor even any points. As Gasly streamed across the finish line, he was in 12th place, a lap down on his former Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen. His battle with the seven-time world champion was a footnote in a race defined by Charles Leclerc’s overambitious and ill-fated attempt to pass Sergio Pérez, which dropped him from third to ninth with less than 10 laps to go. Gasly’s great defensive drive netted a worse result than Leclerc’s catastrophic error.
Formula One is as much an engineering challenge as a driving challenge, more so than in American series like IndyCar and NASCAR, where the equipment is more standardized. Without the right car, a driver has only a remote chance at podiums and wins, and no hope of winning a title.
Gasly got his chance in a top-tier car in 2019—a disappointing half-season with a third-place Red Bull outfit—and he’s trying to prove he deserves another. But despite becoming something of a sentimental favorite in the sport in the past three years, bouncing back from initial failure to join the ranks of race winners and team leaders, that opportunity has yet to materialize.
“I see Charles in a Ferrari, I see Max in the Red Bull, George [Russell] in the Mercedes, Lando [Norris] in the McLaren—I’ve been fighting with these guys all my career,” Gasly told RaceFans in the Imola race weekend. “I know that’s where I belong, and I want to get my chance to be in this position as well.”
The above quote seemed pretty spicy at the time, an elbow thrown by a driver who’d gotten the most he could out of his car and was now angling for an upgrade. So when I sat down with Gasly before the Miami Grand Prix two weeks later, I asked him whether he was trying to send a message with such a blunt statement. He replied that he wasn’t trying to be provocative, but merely responding to a direct question with a direct answer: that he believes he can hang with the sport’s brightest talents.
“I’ve fought with them basically my entire career,” Gasly said. “I’ve been teammates with Charles when we were younger, been fighting with these guys in younger formulas. I just know that we are on a similar level to fight for these positions, and we have different career paths.”
Gasly’s career path hasn’t been easy, as anyone who’s seen (drops a dollar in the “American journalist references Drive to Survive in an article about F1” swear jar) Season 2 of Drive to Survive will remember. After winning the GP2 series in 2016 and impressing with Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) as a rookie, the 23-year-old Frenchman earned a promotion to Red Bull’s senior team at the start of 2019.
In Formula One, a seat at a top team is a treasured commodity, and Red Bull was certainly that. The Austrian outfit had taken a step back since its run of four straight titles to start the 2010s, but it had won at least one race in nine of the previous 10 years and looked to be headed in the right direction after inking a works engine deal with Honda. Certainly Verstappen was a world champion in the making, and Gasly—it was thought at the time—could be as formidable a teammate as the recently departed Daniel Ricciardo had been. But while Gasly finished in the points nine times in 12 races, he never made the podium and never quite fit in with the notoriously unforgiving Red Bull environment.
“When I was there, for various reasons, all of us as a team didn’t manage to create that sort of connection, unfortunately,” Gasly said. “With more time, things could have been different.”
During the 2019 summer break, Red Bull swapped Gasly for rookie Alex Albon, sending the young Frenchman back to Toro Rosso. The weekend of Gasly’s first race back at Toro Rosso, his close friend, Anthoine Hubert, died in a Formula Two crash at Spa-Francorchamps, dealing an unthinkable emotional blow to a driver already at his professional nadir.
But Gasly quickly rediscovered his form, snagging a surprise second-place finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix, and then earning that memorable win at Monza in 2020. Albon, meanwhile, was no more successful at Red Bull than Gasly had been, and despite getting about three times as much rope as Gasly did, he lost the seat at the end of 2020. Once again Red Bull went another direction, this time in favor of the veteran Pérez, the team’s first external driver hire in 14 years.
In the meantime, Gasly added a third career podium—third place at a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2021—and finished ninth in the 2021 drivers’ championship in the sixth-fastest car. And this year, Gasly’s fifth full F1 season, he came in oozing confidence and a maturity that he lacked during his chaotic Red Bull days.
“The skills, I believe it’s something either you have it or you don’t,” Gasly said. “But then with more experience, you’re always fine-tuning your abilities to adjust. F1 never goes the way you plan it. There are so many different parameters that can change all the time. So you’ve got to adapt yourself every time to the conditions, to the car behavior. And I feel I’ve improved a lot with [the team] to maximize a car that is not maybe suited exactly the way I want.”
What stands out about Gasly post–Red Bull is not just the results, it’s the leadership role he’s taken within AlphaTauri. Great drivers, from Hamilton to Alain Prost to Niki Lauda, see themselves as responsible not just for getting the car around the circuit but also developing it before it gets there. Gasly’s become more comfortable with that part of the job since 2019.
“The understanding we have with each other, with my engineering team, is nice. We speak the same language,” Gasly says. “When I come out of the car, I say things like, ‘I need more front grip in these types of corners. Rear grip is too weak there. I like this and that on the car.’ We just understand each other. We don’t need to go too deep for them to understand what they’re going to provide me. I think this obviously comes from working a certain amount of time with each other and seeing what works.”
Last year, AlphaTauri took a risk with its driver lineup, replacing Daniil Kvyat—a veteran of 110 F1 starts—with 21-year-old Honda protégé Yuki Tsunoda, a talented but inconsistent rookie who exhibited impressive pace at times but became most famous for his floridly profane brand of self-criticism. It was Gasly who kept AlphaTauri in the fight with Alpine for fifth place in the constructors’ championship, almost by himself. While the two Alpine drivers, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso, split the points almost equally, Gasly scored 77.5 percent of AlphaTauri’s, the highest share of any driver on the grid last year.
As Tsunoda has gotten more comfortable in his second year on the grid, he says his relationship with Gasly has evolved accordingly.
“I think our relationship is more friendly compared to last year,” Tsunoda said. “We’re having more conversations about how to make the car better, or how does the car feel? Those conversations, as Formula One drivers, are happening more than last year. Definitely, it’s the right way, the right conversations to have to develop as a team.”
AlphaTauri had plenty of reason to be optimistic entering this year: Their car shares crucial components—most notably the power unit—with the championship-winning Red Bull. Tsunoda was finally getting comfortable. And Gasly was at the top of his game. Maybe, it seemed, Gasly wouldn’t have to move to find a race-winning car after all.
Despite Gasly’s skill and Tsunoda’s maturation, though, AlphaTauri have taken a step backward through the first five races of 2022. Alpine and McLaren have been similarly snakebit at times, but former backmarkers Haas and Alfa Romeo not only nailed the new aerodynamic regulations, but they also upgraded their driver lineups, making them regular points threats this year. After a pair of mechanical failures early, AlphaTauri currently sits seventh in the constructors’ standings, with Tsunoda and Gasly 12th and 13th, respectively, in the drivers’. But Gasly thinks it’s too soon to give up hope on the season.
“Did you see the McLaren in Bahrain? Awful,” he said. “The McLaren [at Imola] was on the podium and was probably the third-fastest car, and that’s all fast development. Even if you’re in a position today, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there tomorrow. If we’re looking at a race in June, in Canada, for example, everybody will have changed their car so much it’s difficult to have a real understanding of where you stand. It goes so fast. F1 never sleeps.”
Gasly believes that, though he has just six points in five races, performances like the one he delivered in Imola will still be recognized by decision-makers—not only in his own team, but around the sport. Even the people who knocked him back down the ladder have taken notice, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner refusing to rule out a reunion in 2023, and Helmut Marko remarking that the team does not want to lose Gasly, but likely will if he’s not back at Red Bull next season. Whether that’s lip service or a statement of intent remains to be seen, but either way, the opinions of the likes of Horner and Marko will determine Gasly’s future, not his raw points total.
“What’s difficult is for outside viewers to judge where the car stands in terms of overall performance,” Gasly said. “Sometimes you will finish in eighth position, and this was the best you could do with the car you have, and someone else finished in third position with a car that could win. That guy will look better than you, but the pure performance that was delivered was probably better from that guy at the back.”
By Gasly’s own admission, this type of outlook—one that views the scoreboard with skepticism—is unusual in the world of sports. “When I look at other sports, I think if you finish eighth, you suck,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. If you win you’re the best, and if you finish second that’s a good result. If you finish 15th that’s not a great result, but in our sport someone that finishes 15th with the slowest car is probably doing an unbelievable performance.”
Whether Gasly meant to or not, he described George Russell’s career path perfectly. The talented young Englishman spent three years wringing every ounce of speed from grossly uncompetitive Williams machinery, and was rewarded for his efforts with cult hero status and, this year, a seat alongside Hamilton at Mercedes.
“I know the guys I competed against are incredibly great drivers,” Russell told me the weekend of last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, when he put his Williams on the front row and got the news he’d be driving for Mercedes in 2022. “As young drivers we all pushed one another. And we all know how Formula One at the moment is very dominated by the car. … It’s all perspective. We all want to be world champion.”
Which is precisely Gasly’s problem. Consider a career arc like his in any other sport: A highly touted young athlete struggles in a high-profile role but flourishes after a change of scenery. In baseball, or basketball, or soccer, an athlete like Gasly would absolutely get another shot with a top team. But in those sports, there are hundreds or even thousands of open roster spots. In F1, there are only 20 in the whole series—and they’ve never been harder to come by.
As recently as a decade ago, F1 teams would flower and wilt every year, and as many as 26 drivers would get onto the grid for a race. But F1 has now had the same 10 teams—no fewer, and annoyingly no more—for six seasons and won’t add any new entries until 2024 at the earliest. Back when the likes of Flavio Briatore and Ron Dennis ran the top teams, they’d cycle freely through drivers who wore their egos on their sleeves and enjoyed threatening to retire. Now, things are very different.
Ferrari has both seats locked down until 2024. Verstappen’s locked in at Red Bull until 2028. Norris is at McLaren until 2025, and the only seat at any of the top four teams that’s set to come open at the end of this season is Pérez’s. Because the sport is safer and the drivers are so well-conditioned, former champions like Hamilton (37) and Alonso (40) are sticking around longer than was previously possible. Everything is much more professional and less chaotic than it used to be, which is not only boring, it’s bad news for a driver like Gasly.
Part of the reason the top teams have such stable lineups is the quality of the drivers both Gasly and Russell mentioned fighting against in the junior formulas. Gasly was born in February 1996, Russell in February 1998. Born in the intervening 24 months: Leclerc, Verstappen, Albon, and Ocon. That’s six of the 20 current drivers, four of them race winners already, born within a two-year span.
Of those six, Gasly, Leclerc, and Russell all won Formula 2 or its predecessor, GP2. Verstappen and Ocon never raced in that series; they impressed so much as teenagers that big teams (Red Bull and Mercedes, respectively) snapped them up and put them in F1 seats before they even turned 20. And even though this generation of drivers is still in their mid-20s, they’re no longer the young guns in the sport. Norris, born in 1999, is McLaren’s golden child, while Tsunoda, Mick Schumacher, and Alpine prodigy Oscar Piastri could also be in the running for top seats in coming years. So could a pair of McLaren-affiliated IndyCar drivers: 22-year-old Colton Herta and 23-year-old Pato O’Ward.
This is, in short, a business that’s short on both opportunity and forgiveness. So there’s no guarantee Gasly’s patience will be rewarded with another shot in a regular race-winning car, even if he does prove himself to be a championship-caliber driver.
“The reason I wake up every single day is the same reason I had when I was younger: coming every weekend and fighting for wins, pole positions, and championships,” Gasly said. “In F1, it’s very different. You can’t do it without the race car. That’s why I’m driven every single day, because I want to be prepared. I want to be ready, the day I have the opportunity to have a race-winning car, to fight for the championship.”
Talking to Gasly, the thing that stands out most is his absolute certainty that this chance will come, when in point of fact there is no guarantee that it will. Maybe this is just standard racing driver confidence; even decades removed from the Graham Hill’s Mustache of it all, there’s something about working at 200 miles an hour that makes even thoughtful and introspective people a little cocky. Or maybe it was failure that ultimately convinced Gasly he would succeed.