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Rising star

Jamie Nonis
Jamie Nonis • 8 min read
Rising star
French Formula 1 driver Pierre Gasly is young, talented and handsome to boot. Watch out for his exploits as he moves up to the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team next year
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French Formula 1 driver Pierre Gasly is young, talented and handsome to boot. Watch out for his exploits as he moves up to the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team next year

SINGAPORE (Dec 20): Three minutes, nine seconds. That was the shortest interview in my entire 17-year journalism career. It took place when Pierre Gasly zipped into town for the Singapore Grand Prix on the third weekend of September.

News of the French Formula 1 driver’s promotion to Aston Martin Red Bull Racing — the stronger, higher-ranked of Red Bull’s two teams on the F1 grid — for the 2019 season had just broken a week earlier, and everyone wanted a piece of this hot, young rising star.

The promotion is an impressive feat for the 22-year-old, whose rise to the most elite and most celebrated race in motor sports has been pretty rapid.

It is only Gasly’s first full F1 season following his debut with the other Red Bull-owned team, Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda, at the Malaysian Grand Prix a year ago, and he has already impressed enough to be moved up to the top team next year.

We are at a press conference in Conrad Centennial Hotel for the launch of the Casio Edifice Scuderia Toro Rosso and Honda Racing Limited Edition watches — one of the many brand partners of the team — and Gasly is clearly still on a high from the news.

“A lot of things have happened in my life in the last 12 months,” he says, beaming. “It’s difficult to expect anything in Formula 1, as there are so many things you can’t predict. Getting my first opportunity with Toro Rosso in Malaysia last year was amazing.”

It has been said that petrol runs through Gasly’s veins. He hails from the French city of Rouen, which hosted five Formula 1 Grand Prixes on a street circuit up until the late 1960s; his father has tried his hand at a variety of motor sports; and his grandfather used to be involved in go-kart racing.

Like all his peers, Gasly graduated to formula racing following a successful karting career from 2006 to 2010. His first taste of single-seater racing came in the competitive French F4 Championship in 2011, when he finished third. He moved up the following year to the two-litre Formula Renault, regarded as an entry-level series to motor racing that allows drivers to learn advanced racecraft before progressing to higher formulas. He came in third that season before taking the title in 2013.

The racing wunderkind’s speed and determination soon caught the attention of Red Bull talent scouts, who promptly signed him up for its Junior Programme. Gasly moved up to the 3.5 Renault series in 2014.

On duty as reserve driver for Red Bull since 2015, Gasly took the opportunity to broaden his experience in other races, as there were no drivers’ seats available for him on Red Bull’s F1 roster in 2016.

He won the 2016 GP2 Series championship in dramatic fashion, taking the title at the final round in Abu Dhabi, and finished runner-up in the very competitive Japanese Super Formula Championship, with two wins and three podium finishes in the 2017 season.

Then, at the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost made a tactical decision to replace Russian driver Daniil Kvyat with Gasly — a decision that was swiftly validated when the rookie finished 14th in his debut F1 race at the Sepang circuit ahead of more seasoned names such as Nico Hülkenberg (Renault).

Recalling his swift ascent since then, Gasly says: “I had a really short time to adapt myself and try to make the best of the last five races [of the 2017 season], and get as much experience as I could to prepare for the 2018 season.”

From the second race of the 2018 Formula 1, it was clear that Gasly had been waiting for this opportunity his entire life. Eager and impatient for victory, he put the pedal to the metal and secured a remarkable fourth-place finish at Bahrain in April.

“It really gave the team a massive boost; for Honda, for Toro Rosso and also for myself. It was a good boost of confidence and I was feeling more and more comfortable in the car,” he says.

We are still at the press conference and the floor is now open to questions from the audience. A fellow journalist asks if he feels confident about the future, given his recent promotion to Red Bull’s top team.

“I think the future looks bright,” says the unassuming, soft-spoken lad, who might be mistaken for an international school student if you saw him walking down Orchard Road. “I’m in exactly the position I wanted to be in when I was a kid,” he adds, brimming with enthusiasm as yet untainted by the cockiness — or jadedness — of some veterans on the grid.

Fierce but friendly competition
That gentle personality, paired with his slender frame, comes across as shy almost. It is sweet. And makes for an interesting juxtaposition against his fiercely competitive nature.

“I’m a really competitive guy,” Gasly asserts. “I’m in the sport to be at the top, and I will be in the seat that will allow me to fight for the top position next year,” he says, referring to the dominance of the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing team, with its cars to be powered by Honda engines from 2019.

According to Gasly, this competitive streak began at age three, driven by a burning desire to win in any sport: “Whatever I play — tennis, football, video games — I need to win.”

He will be taking Daniel Ricciardo’s seat next season as the Australian moves to Renault, and is looking forward to racing alongside future Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen. The latter just concluded the 2018 season in fourth position, having taken the podium for half the races this season.

The relationship with Verstappen, says Gasly, is “fantastic”. The pair have known each other as karting competitors since 2010 and “have a lot of respect for each other”. Equally competitive off track, the duo also hang out together and “always like to beat each other” in everything they do.

“We are both really competitive guys, so I think the spirit in the team will be really positive. He’s one of the most talented guys on the grid. I’m really happy to be next to someone who’s really fast because if you want to be the best, you have to fight against the best. As long as we can separate what happens on the track from what happens off the track, the relationship will be good,” he adds.

Star potential
The press conference has concluded, and we are ushered to an adjoining room for the media interviews. We are soon informed that the duration of our precious one-on-one with Gasly has been further trimmed, as he is held up by fans and journalists next door.

We are offered a choice to head back to the press conference room to conduct the interview on the fly. We agree, in the hopes of preserving the final few minutes we have been allocated with him. We are up next and his minders are waiting to whisk him away the moment the press circus ends.

Gasly is much taller up close than he first appears, towering over me at 1.77m. His practised responses are the product of a professional, well-oiled machine but delivered with an earnestness that is refreshingly endearing. It is only later that I learn that Gasly is not feeling well; the reason his people are eager to wrap up the interview is so that he can get some rest.

Noting his 14th-place driver’s standing prior to the Singapore race, I ask what rank he hopes to achieve by the end of the 2018 season.

“Objectively, I think it would be difficult to get much more,” he says, adding that the other drivers are in cars with “more consistency”.

How does he think he will fare in Singapore, which is also a night race like Bahrain, where he finished in fourth place — the closest he has come to the podium? “Hopefully in the same place,” he says. “Singapore is a very technical and challenging track, where the Toro Rosso car usually performs well. It will be my first time discovering the track this weekend and, hopefully, we can end the weekend with a couple of points.”

Alas, Gasly failed to score any points on the board, finishing the Singapore Grand Prix in 13th position.

Well, as he said earlier: “I’m only at the beginning of my career. I know exactly where I want to be and what I want to achieve with Formula 1, and I will do everything I can to make it happen.”

With his fiercely competitive spirit and strong self-belief, Gasly is definitely a new face and name to watch out for on the grid going into 2019.

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful

This article appeared in Issue 862 (Dec 24) of The Edge Singapore.

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