Daniel Ricciardo surprised the F1 world – and indeed his Red Bull team – when he announced his move to Renault. Red Bull had the choice of looking externally, recalling Carlos Sainz on loan or promoting Pierre Gasly from Toro Rosso. They opted for the latter.
It’s a bold move by Red Bull. This time last year, Gasly wasn’t even in F1. Right now, he has just 17 Grand Prix starts to his name. And yet he is set to drive for one of the championship’s top three teams in 2019, alongside Max Verstappen. It’s no wonder Gasly was thrown by the news.
“When Helmut [Marko, Red Bull Motorsport Advisor] started the call with me, I was in my underwear,” says Gasly. “When the call ended I ran around the house shouting to my mates and they all jumped in the pool straight away.
“There was so much excitement and I was so happy about it because it’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. Of course when I came in to the Red Bull junior programme, that was the target, to drive in Formula 1 for this team, so I was just so happy and had so much excitement. There were a lot of emotions as well and I was just so shocked.”
Maximising their junior programme
Red Bull were caught off guard when Ricciardo broke the news to them. Red Bull boss Christian Horner admitted he thought the Honey Badger was joking when he first told him. Marko was surprised, too, given Red Bull had seemingly given Ricciardo a contract he was happy with.
But when it became clear he was serious, Red Bull had some decisions to make – and fast. It is here that their junior programme comes in handy. Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz bought the team that is now Toro Rosso for the purpose of training up young drivers to race for the senior team. And they are keen to utilise it rather than look outside the Red Bull family.
It’s not hard to see why as they’ve had tremendous success with it. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and race winners Ricciardo and Verstappen have all come through the programme. Sainz and Gasly are next in line. Both have proved they can deliver strong results in F1.
Sainz has more experience, courtesy of three years with Toro Rosso and this campaign with Renault, but he fought hard to be allowed a loan move to Renault when it became clear a promotion to Red Bull would be unlikely in the short term, given they had a settled line-up of Ricciardo and Verstappen.
In Gasly, they had a young, hungry driver and winner of the GP2 championship (now known as F2) in 2016, who has comfortably beaten his team mate Brendon Hartley this season and shown great speed.
His drive to fourth in Bahrain was majestic, and he proved that it wasn’t just a one-off with seventh in Monaco and sixth in Hungary, leaving him on 26 points. In contrast, Hartley has managed just two. Gasly leads the qualifying head-to-head seven-three, and has made it into Q3 three times to Hartley’s solo appearance.
There have been a few fractious moments during Ricciardo and Verstappen’s Red Bull partnership, most notably their collision in Baku earlier this year, while there were pinch points during Sainz and Verstappen’s time at Toro Rosso, too. It is hoped a Gasly-Verstappen partnership will work well.
“I have a really good relationship with Max,” said Gasly. “I have known him a long time, we raced each other in karting. I have worked with the team for a couple of years now.
“I will have things to learn in the first few races, as I’m still quite new in F1, but my long term target is to be the best in the sport and to be best, I have to fight against best. Max is one of the best on grid at the moment, so it’s an amazing opportunity to drive next to him next year.”
Calling on Gasly’s Honda experience
Gasly also has crucial experience with Red Bull-bound Honda, first during his Super Formula campaign in Japan and now with Toro Rosso, who took on Honda as their supplier for this season.
Honda are fourth and last in the pecking order of engine manufacturers, as they have been since they returned to F1 for the 2015 season, so Red Bull will need all the help they can get.
Gasly is rated highly by Honda, understands their culture and, critically, has first-hand experience of working with the engineers as they look to integrate their engine into a new team’s chassis.
“Working with Honda for the past two years certainly helps,” says Gasly. “When I came to Super Formula, we started to build up the relationship with them at that time. Then when I switched to Toro Rosso, it was pretty good that Honda started the relationship with the team at the same time as me.
“Now next year, Honda start with Red Bull, making the switch with me – it’s like I follow them with their next steps, so it’s pretty cool. Of course I already know the people, so for sure it’s a good experience. I know the way they communicate, the way they work, I know the geography of Japan, which is a different culture to what we experience in Europe.
“So for sure it’s beneficial and the experience of driving with them this year with their engine, I know their strengths, I know where they can improve, so for sure bringing that experience next year is always useful.”
Losing Ricciardo’s race-winning experience will hurt Red Bull. The Australian has won more races than Verstappen this year and is currently ahead in the drivers’ championship. But in Gasly, they have a driver who has proved his speed in junior categories and immediately when given the chance at Toro Rosso. That is exactly the kind of driver Red Bull need as they embark on a new era with Honda.