Pierre Gasly elevated himself to the top echelon of Grand Prix racing yesterday and, like the last winner for the Faenza-based team, has all the ingredients to become a great of the sport.
He became the 109th Grand Prix winner by the tightest of margins with a superlative win at Monza. A career-defining moment that finally moves the narrative away from his doomed Red Bull spell.
It’s the latest high in a rollercoaster three years in the sport, with taller peaks and deeper troughs than some drivers experience in their whole careers.
In his first season he showcased the raw pace to earn a top seat, and last year the fortitude to survive in the sport when the going gets tough while this season he’s knitted that together with strong consistency.
From the optimism of his impressive first season and the call-up to Red Bull, to the crushing disappointment of not making the grade and suffering the ignominy of being demoted after just half the season.
Then the heartbreak of losing his close friend Anthoine Hubert at Spa last year before having the resilience and determination to dig in at Toro Rosso, fight back and earn his first podium at Brazil.
And now his best season, where he’s been consistently in the top ten on Saturday and Sunday and was able to put it all together when it really mattered.
Gasly even made it to F1 the hard way – he won GP2 in 2016 but then had to prove himself again in Super Formula before securing the seat at Toro Rosso.
In 2016 he was locked in a tight fight with Antonio Giovinazzi all the way through, winning less races than his rival but also recording more points finishes.
After a tough penultimate round in Malaysia where the Italian closed by 23 points, Gasly held his nerve in Abu Dhabi to win the feature race and claim the title by eight points, before he was sent to Japan for 2017.
He mounted another title challenge there, finishing second and just half a point behind Hiroaki Ishuira in a strong field that included Felix Rosenqvist, André Lotterer and Kamui Kobayashi.
After running pointless from a dreadful first two rounds Gasly recorded back-to-back wins and then a second to have all the momentum going into the final double-header, but lost out on the chance to snatch the title as the rounds were abandoned due to Typhoon Lan.
This achievement shouldn’t be taken lightly: it was failure to thrive in Japan that sunk Dan Ticktum’s Red Bull career while Pato O’Ward was also unable to get going there.
The experience will have taught Gasly a lot, and probably proved as important to Helmut Marko as his GP2 triumph.
After a five-race cameo in 2017, Gasly’s first full F1 season saw flashes of brilliance in an uncompetitive Toro Rosso.
The Frenchman showed he had the pace and racecraft to make it at the top, recording a brilliant fourth in Bahrain, sixth in Hungary and seventh in Monaco, with the result in the desert showing off his best qualities.
He qualified a sixth and overtook Daniel Ricciardo off the line, holding the Australian behind for several corners before having to yield. Then following an early VSC he made a stout defence from Kevin Magnussen, the Dane looking all over the Toro Rosso but unable to make the pass thanks to Gasly’s expert car positioning.
Most impressive of all was the way that Gasly was then able to pull a gap despite the long straights at Sakhir, putting in consistent lap times to eventually finish ten seconds ahead.
Equally impressive was his return to Toro Rosso after a chastening twelve races in the top team. In his first race in Spa he was right back on the pace and even held Alex Albon behind him for several laps, eventually finishing ninth.
He recorded a solid three points finishes in his next five races before his first career podium in Brazil, which again showcased his qualifying, fast starts and ability to keep cool under pressure – who could forget his drag race to the line with Lewis Hamilton?
And so to Monza. It was the all-round skill set that earned him the win this weekend, the first part of which was a strong qualifying session that saw him yet again make the top ten.
Comfortably too – he set the sixth-fastest time in Q2 and beat the cutoff time by a quarter of a second.
Then came the genius strategy call to pit him following Magnussen’s retirement but a lap earlier than the safety car was called.
Once the safety car shenanigans had shaken out and the red flag been lifted, Gasly was able to put consistent hot laps down while Carlos Sainz was stuck in traffic, and forge enough of a gap that the Spaniard wasn’t able to get within striking distance until too late.
Considering the deficit that Honda-powered cars seemed to be running to the Renault engines throughout the weekend, Gasly’s ability to stay ahead was remarkable.
And not just the pace – Gasly’s temperament to not put a wheel wrong for the whole of his 25-lap sprint showed how he’s matured.
For all of his success, the future remains uncertain for Gasly. Red Bull have a few juniors in the pipeline with Franz Tost hinting Yuki Tsunoda could be given a drive next season if he can secure his super licence, plus Liam Lawson impressing in FIA F3.
If Marko and co. still deem him not a viable option in the top team, he’ll have to look for a fresh start away from the programme he’s grown in since 2014 but should have no shortage of offers on the table.
Renault could look at him for 2022 if Esteban Ocon suffers the Vandoorne effect once Alonso joins next season while there’s a host of ageing midfield drivers on the grid who he’d been an upgrade over.
The Renault fit would seem to be a good one, but on merit he should have a table-full of offers once he moves on from AlphaTauri.
The last word on this deserves to go to Tost, the man who oversees a superb operation at Faenza and has done since 2006.
The team have been one of the best-run outfits in the business for a while now, and the highly-overlooked Austrian thoroughly deserves this result.
He said: “The team did a fantastic job, Pierre was really driving a good race. I must also say that from Friday FP1 onwards, we were quite competitive because Pierre was on the fourth, fifth, sixth place all the time and we felt we had a fast car here as we had in Spa.
“We had good luck with the red flag, we were also lucky because of the penalty with Hamilton.
“Pierre drove a fantastic race without any mistakes. He could keep the distance to Carlos, he controlled everything.
“He is very motivated, he was already last year when he came back from Red Bull. Today he drove a real brilliant race because he wasn’t the lead and he controlled it.
“When Carlos came a little closer he proved his speed in sector two.
“If we lose him, it means the team did a good job, because otherwise they wouldn’t take him. Currently, I’m quite optimistic he will stay with us.”