The return of the Formula One French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard has coincided with the arrival on the scene of France’s very own Pierre Gasly, whose swift rise up the F1 ranks to the Red Bull senior team has been an evolution, many years in the making. In an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid, the 23-year-old sat down with Jennie Gow to discuss his move from Toro Rosso, and just what it means to be competing at his home Grand Prix once again this year.
When you’re handed an opportunity in life, sometimes you have to grab it with both hands. Pierre Gasly did just that in 2017 when he got the call to come to F1.
The young Frenchman had won the 2016 GP2 Championship, but at the time there was nowhere for him to go, so he went to Japan to compete in Super Formula, and then onto Formula E.
Some worried that Gasly had missed his chance.
But when an upheaval at Toro Rosso saw Carlos Sainz agree a move to Renault, and with teammate Daniil Kvyat deemed in need of a rest, the stars aligned at the tail-end of the year, paving the way for Gasly to make his move to the big time.
Still only 21 at the time, Gasly would race for Toro Rosso alongside New Zealand’s Brendon Hartley, who had impressed in the World Endurance Championship with Porsche.
Contesting five races in 2017, starting with the Malaysian Grand Prix, Gasly’s ‘trial’ with the team was a success. And his move to the Red Bull Junior team was made permanent for 2018.
Regarded as a team which nurtures young talent, Gasly was given plenty of room to succeed, and the timing of his first full year in F1 couldn’t have been more perfect… Not least because, for the first time in 10 years, the French Grand Prix was back on the calendar.
“It was perfect timing,” he explains. “And I must say I got lucky with the exact moment the GP came back with my first full season in F1.”
Engaging and always polite, Pierre sits with a stubbly chin and a fresh-faced enthusiasm which is pretty contagious; “It was the perfect match, and it was such an experience coming on the track. Like, little French supportive messages that make the difference and which give you an extra boost for the race weekend. It was clearly a special moment, and I’m really looking forward to going there again this year.”
There are, however, some downsides to being an F1 driver when a home race is on the calendar, as Pierre explains.
Being inundated with requests for tickets from everyone under the sun, is no easy thing to manage. He laughs as we talk about it; “That’s exactly what happens, and all the friends and family, and people sometimes you don’t know, expect you to have a thousand tickets to give… And of course you will do it if that’s what you will get, but it’s a lot tougher than that, and it’s a bit difficult to deal with. But the overall weekend is such an experience to see so many people enjoying and sharing the same passion for motorsport. I think, in France, we have a lot of fans that didn’t get the chance to go to a Formula One weekend for quite some years, and it’s great to give them the opportunity again.”
Last year’s French GP didn’t go as planned for Gasly. He was forced to retire not long after the start after a collision with fellow Frenchman Estaban Ocon… A disaster for both home men.
This year, however, Gasly will return to France as a fully-fledged Aston Martin Red Bull driver, after his winter promotion from Toro Rosso to the senior team.
It was an opportunity which came about after a string of good results – notably at Bahrain – combined with the departure of Daniel Ricciardo. Now, Gasly will go to his home race in a car that looks like it could challenge for a podium spot at least.
“We’ll see how it goes”, he says. “Clearly, with the development going on at the moment, that’s what we are trying to achieve, so I think we still have a bit of work but everything is going in the right direction. For sure, [France] is one race where – I mean, you want to be competitive everywhere – but that’s clearly a special one for me, and I would be delighted to perform really well there in front of all the French crowd. Massive push as every weekend, but for that weekend. I hope we can get a good result.”
Gasly is clearly a proud Frenchman who delights in the history and tradition of French motorsport. So who, I ask, is his inspiration?
“I’m still pretty young. I’m only 23, and it’s not like I’ve known all the French drivers from the past.” At this point, he laughs cheekily as I remind him not to rub it in… “That’s just mean, saying you are young!”, I joke back.
“I think we have had some amazing drivers and actually, last year, that’s what I did on my helmet with all the names of previous F1 French drivers who won GPs. The most iconic one and the one with the most success in F1 is Alain [Prost], and I think it’s really great to still have him in the paddock and still involved in F1 in different roles, but still looking out there for me. I started to know him a bit more personally during my season in GP2. He helped me quite a lot in how to look at things in F1. He has always been really welcoming and open, and it’s great to have him here. He is the most legendary French driver… Not only in France; he is also a worldwide icon.”
As our interview comes to a close, I wish him well for the weeks ahead. Though he has endured a tricky start with his new team, I’m sure his time will come sooner rather than later.
With a cheeky grin and clearly a wicked sense of humour, Pierre Gasly is a thoroughly likable chap. I really hope he continues to settle in at Red Bull. It will be a challenge, but just imagine the reception he would get if he managed to climb onto the podium in France – the whole country would go crazy.