With backing from Red Bull and highly-rated given his junior formulae exploits as the 2016 GP2 Series champion, the likable Pierre Gasly is touted as a driver who could genuinely be France’s next Formula 1 World Champion.
Narrowly overlooked for promotion to Scuderia Toro Rosso’s race line-up last year, the Frenchman kept his powder dry with an impressive rookie showing in the Japanese Super Formula championship.
His big opportunity came when Toro Rosso sidelined the underperforming Dannil Kvyat and drafted the young Gasly into its STR13 at the Malaysian Grand Prix. It was a difficult environment to enter and with the car’s reliability on the nose, he had the steepest of learning curves.
Now entering his first full-time season with the Italian outfit – now collaborating with Honda as its power unit supplier – Gasly is full of excitement for the upcoming season, as he revealed in an exclusive 1:1 interview during the Australian Grand Prix weekend.
It was a tough baptism for your debut at the back end of 2017. Engine reliability was a huge problem; you had more grid penalties than hot breakfasts. What were the lessons you took away about yourself, the team, and overcoming adversity to apply to the fresh start that 2018 represents?
The main thing was the experience of approaching a Formula 1 race weekend, the way of working with the engineers and understanding what we need to be more competitive. Of course it’s a compromise between what the engineers can deliver and what I want and need [from the car].
I feel more comfortable in the car after four days of testing than I did when I was thrown in the deep end in Malaysia and straight into FP1. That being said, last year gave me a better understanding of how to approach and manage an F1 race weekend. To extract everything, you need to have a certain approach and I know better how to do this.
Most importantly there was the switch to Honda engines and the new car has been reliable. Is this giving you a confidence lift heading into 2018 with the preparation you’ve had.
Yes. For us it’s been a really period of testing with so many laps in the car. This is what you need to really prepare yourself, understand the car and the directions you want to take with set-up. It’s been really positive and it gives you confidence. I feel really comfortable in the car and know the direction we need to take. Barcelona doesn’t count [for points] and everything starts in earnest on Saturday in qualifying. That’s where we need to make sure we extract everything from our potential. It’s been a really start to the collaboration between Toro Rosso and Honda, and hopefully we can make it even better.
It will be your first time racing at Albert Park. What are your impressions of this circuit?
During the track walk on Thursday what struck me most was its atmosphere. It’s not like the newer circuits where you have massive run-off and the crowds sit far away. Here you race under the trees, and it’s still quite old-school with the grass [run-off] and gravel traps. There’s no room for mistakes and it’s exciting as a driver to have this kind of track.
I’m really excited, it’s a new track for me, and when you discover new things it’s always exciting. I’m really looking forward to start, and it’s going to be really meaningful for me as my first race of my first full-time season in F1. It will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
The circuit will have a third DRS zone. What is your opinion of this change?
We know Melbourne is a difficult track to overtake on. It’s worth trying. In a way it will at least get you closer to the guy in front to use the other DRS zones on the main straight and between Turns 2/3. It’ll also make the car faster in qualifying and will hopefully see the qualifying lap record get broken.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Halo and in the Thursday FIA Press Conference the three drivers [Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel] expressed concerns that it was making identifying drivers even more difficult. They suggested different colours between a team’s two cars as a potential solution – what are your thoughts?
I’m up for it. It’s really tough if you imagine the people in the grandstands trying to spot their favourite driver. Yes there’s the number and driver name on the car, but it’s still hard. The best thing to do would be to cut it [the Halo] off completely, but if you need to keep it as we will have to this year, I think it would be a great option.
Formula 1 returns to France this year with the Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. How excited are you to race at home?
I must say I’m stoked! I’ve raced on that configuration in 2013-14, I’ve had pole position and won there. To be in my first full-time season and it be the return of the French Grand Prix is personally very exciting. For France this is also great as you have Renault back as a race team, three French drivers on the grid. F1 has been a huge part of French culture and I can’t wait to get back there. It’s always a different feeling to race on home soil.
What other circuits are you looking forward to visit as a rookie F1 driver this year?
Monaco is always one of the most exciting on the calendar. I’m also excited about going to Singapore; I’ve never raced there but it’s one of my favourite tracks when I’m playing on Playstation.
You’ve graduated to F1 via the PREMA GP2 (and now Formula 2) team, which won the title with you at its first attempt. Why has this team been so successful and remained the team to beat heading into its third season in the feeder championship?
They have the right approach in trying to always improve the package they have. They are always pushing, always trying to go really deeply in engineering, understanding the tyres. Obviously it’s a control formula, but there’s still a lot of setting you can change to improve the car.
PREMA does this better than the others: all of the engineers are really good. Under their leadership, there’s a great philosophy and mentality to keep pushing. In my time there we had one bad session, and by the next session the car was back to where it should be. They could bounce back quickly and get back to the top.
Images via Ignite Image and MotorsportM8