DRIVER MARKET: With one French star’s future secure, where does Gasly’s future lie?
Alpine became the latest team to finalise their 2022 line-up early doors with news they had offered Esteban Ocon a lengthy three-year contract, committing him to the French team until at least the end of 2024. But what repercussions does this have on the rest of the driver market, particularly for the likes of Ocon’s highly-rated countryman Pierre Gasly?
There had been a train of thought for many in the F1 paddock that Gasly’s stellar form for AlphaTauri - including that brilliant win last year in Monza - could be enough to endear him to Alpine in the near future, a works drive with a French team a potentially favourable next step.
But while Alpine did have a back-up list of alternative avenues for the seat alongside Alonso, their first choice was always Ocon (who is managed by Mercedes). They’d seen enough from him on track in terms of pure pace, and off track where he exuded a newfound confidence, to convince them he was their future.
READ MORE: Ocon says new Alpine deal is 'weight off the shoulders' – and explains impact on Mercedes ties
While that doesn’t rule out a future move to Alpine for Gasly - perhaps post-Alonso, to form a French super team - it is not an immediate option. And that leaves Gasly, despite his heroics for AlphaTauri this year, with very few avenues to explore…
Red Bull have decisions to make
Staying put is certainty a strong option. AlphaTauri rely heavily on his feedback and direction, especially with rookie team mate Yuki Tsunoda still bedding himself in. The mechanics and engineers love him and are energised by his ability to get absolutely everything out of the car - and then some.
But while this team is now referred to as a sister rather than junior team, it still exists to blood new drivers for the Red Bull works team. And Gasly is past that point in his career now.
This is his fourth full season with the team and staying on for another year might be a tough call for Red Bull to make, particularly if the likes of Juri Vips, Liam Lawson or Jehan Daruvala impress enough in F2 to earn promotion.
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But he is delivering at a high level, aiding Tsunoda’s development, and earning championship points that are putting the team in the fight for P5 in the championship, which of course means a hefty chunk of prize money for the Red Bull coffers, reducing the need to lean on Dietrich Mateschitz’s wallet. That’s an attractive proposition.
With a move back to the Red Bull works team he did just 12 races for in 2019 unlikely, with senior management seemingly not keen to re-promote him, the energy drinks company have a big decision to make.
Do they keep a driver racing at his peak in the pool in case they need him at Red Bull (and to help the success of AlphaTauri) or cut him loose if he doesn’t figure in their plans long-term and throw their weight behind the next generation of Red Bull-backed drivers?
ANALYSIS: Why Alpine and Ocon have decided to stick together for the long-term
Speaking on Thursday, Gasly said he hasn’t talked to Red Bull about his future yet.
“I think it’s still quite early, on my side,” he said. “Things are in the hands of Red Bull. At the end of the day it will be up to them to make the decision whether we continue together, continue with AlphaTauri, with Red Bull or other options. It’s something that at the moment we haven’t really talked yet. I guess we will see in the coming weeks and coming months what we want to do and yes, that’s about it.”
Williams could be an option
Where else could Gasly go? There’s technically two seats available at Mercedes, but the reality is Lewis Hamilton will almost certainly extend his stay at the Silver Arrows for at least another season while Valtteri Bottas and George Russell appear set to duel for the second seat.
That only leaves openings at Alfa Romeo and Williams (assuming of course that Aston Martin will retain owner Lawrence Stroll’s son Lance alongside Sebastian Vettel and that Red Bull won’t bring him back) - and of those, the latter could be a cracking opportunity.
Sure, they’re at the back of the grid right now - as they have been since 2018 - but they are a team that are on the up and well-resourced to support a bid back up the field.
READ MORE: Williams drivers thank outgoing Team Principal Roberts as Capito takes over
Williams will likely be bracing themselves for a Russell exit, the Briton having already said he is keen to know his future before the summer break and would dearly love a move to Mercedes.
And so securing a signing of Gasly’s calibre would be quite the move for Williams at this point in the rebuild. The Frenchman has proven his speed and his ability to motivate a team around him. He’s incredibly likeable, which makes him good for the brand - an area Williams are putting a big focus on - and would serve as a statement of intent from the team that they are able to sign talented drivers.
It would mean that Gasly would have to take some of the growing pains that come with revitalising a new project. But he’s still only 25, and could have a long career ahead of him. This would be an opportunity to work on an exciting project from the ground up and potentially build the team around him.
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There’s no doubt it would be a gamble. But if AlphaTauri isn’t an option, Red Bull seemingly not interested in bringing him back to the top table and drives elsewhere filling up, this could be a move that would at worst keep him in F1 and people’s mindsets and at best could make his career.
How does the rest of the driver market look?
Mercedes have said they are keen to sort their driver line-up significantly earlier this time around, having not announced Hamilton’s current one-year deal until a few weeks before pre-season testing.
Sometime before the summer break, then, would be preferable for all involved. For Mercedes, it’s the dilemma they have become familiar with - do they promote junior driver Russell or keep hold of Bottas, who over the last four years has shown himself to be a solid driver that can be relied upon to help with the constructors’ championship at the very least, but of late seems to have gone off the boil?
READ MORE: 'We need a car both drivers can push to its limits' says Wolff ahead of French GP
Red Bull, too, must decide if Sergio Perez deserves another year. His consistent progress, which last time out in Baku yielded his first win for the team and helped them extend their constructors’ championship lead despite Max Verstappen retiring, suggests he’s doing more than enough to warrant a new deal.
And that just leaves Williams and Alfa Romeo. As discussed Gasly could be an option for Williams, who have a shortlist of drivers. But sorting that out right now isn’t a priority, as CEO Jost Capito focuses on restructuring the team first. He also knows that the team is an enticing prospect, with several drivers believed to have submitted an interest in joining them in the future.
Nicholas Latifi has done a decent job so far in his second season, so remains in contention to stay on. And they would want to keep Russell, if that is an option should Mercedes turn down the chance to sign him.
If Russell were to join Mercedes in place of Bottas, that would also put the Finn in the mix to go the other way. He started his career at the British team and will almost certainly be on Williams’ shortlist should he become available.
Alfa Romeo have been impressed by Antonio Giovinazzi, and through his Ferrari backing - he’s part of their junior programme – it’s a genuine option he’ll stay on for a fourth season.
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Kimi Raikkonen may be heading for his mid-40s but he’s showing no signs of throwing in the towel, and if his feedback remains at a high level and he can get results, Alfa Romeo may struggle to find a reason to change their line-up. Callum Ilott has impressed in his reserve role, and could have a shot if Ferrari push him over Giovinazzi.
As we head into the first triple header of the season, much remains to be decided…