Pierre Gasly’s stirring recovery drive to eighth place at the Belgian Grand Prix was confirmation of the Frenchman’s renaissance in Formula 1.
In the past year, Gasly has gone from being demoted from Red Bull to their junior team, his career apparently hanging by a thread, to being one of the standout performers on the grid.
At the same time, while his replacement at Red Bull, Alex Albon, impressed last year, this year he – like Gasly before him – has been struggling alongside team-mate Max Verstappen.
Their parallel tales make for an interesting and confusing contrast.
A year ago, things were very tough for Gasly.
The Frenchman had been promoted to Red Bull for 2019, but then unceremoniously dropped mid-season, before the Belgian Grand Prix. A series of incidents and a lack of pace compared to Verstappen convinced Red Bull management that they had to get him out of what appeared to be a downward spiral.
Albon, meanwhile, arrived at Red Bull and made a very accomplished debut.
Starting from last position after an engine penalty, he drove his way up to fifth at the chequered flag, almost matching Gasly’s best Red Bull result straight away.
As a rookie, it was an impressive drive. Albon won many plaudits for some audacious overtakes on his way through the field and only narrowly missed out on driver of the day.
I’m sure this would have been hard to take for Gasly, whose career needed a serious turnaround after his demotion to Toro Rosso.
No doubt his natural human instinct would have liked to see Albon struggle when he stepped into the Frenchman’s shoes at Red Bull, but Albon’s was a drive that seemed only to further reduce Gasly’s hopes of a long future in F1.
In some ways, though, it may have all seemed inconsequential to Gasly, because he had more to go through than just some tough on-track results.
It was also a year ago at the Belgian Grand Prix that the motorsport world lost Anthoine Hubert, a promising Formula 2 driver, and close friend and compatriot of Gasly, in a huge crash at the start of his own race at Spa-Francorchamps.
Gasly and Hubert had grown up together, racing as part of the FFSA (French driver academy) and even living with each other for a period of time.
The motorsport world mourned the tragic death of a highly promising youngster, and Gasly mourned the death of a friend – someone who would have been celebrating Gasly’s promotion to Red Bull with him the winter before, who would have seen the struggles that Gasly went through in that team, after two crashes in pre-season testing and never finding his feet.
Sadly, Hubert did not live to see the remarkable return to form Gasly has produced in the 12 months that followed his friend’s death.
He was excellent as soon as he got back into the Toro Rosso last year, and a series of strong showings culminated in a shock podium in Brazil last year, where Gasly produced the underdog performance of the season to out-drag Lewis Hamilton to the line and finish second.
He achieved with Toro Rosso what he could never do with Red Bull – get on the podium.
This year Gasly has gone from strength to strength once more and is showcasing why Red Bull promoted him in the first place.
Another accomplished drive at Spa last weekend earned Gasly eighth place after some strong overtaking moves and a charging drive through the lower field on a reverse strategy.
He also claimed the fans vote for ‘driver of the day’ for his efforts.
Gasly’s four points have lifted him up to 18 for the year compared to just two for his team-mate Daniil Kvyat, also formerly of the main Red Bull team before being demoted.
Gasly’s return to form in the midfield Alpha Tauri team – as Toro Rosso has been renamed – coincides with the less-than-inspiring form of Albon.
Since Albon’s impressive debut charge at Spa last year, he hasn’t managed to take his game on in a way that everyone, particularly Red Bull, probably expected.
There have been some nearly moments for him to get his first F1 podium.
The same Brazilian Grand Prix that provided Gasly’s podium breakthrough last year should have been Albon’s breakthrough instead, but a late collision with Hamilton ruled him out.
Then another collision with Hamilton cost him a certain podium and a possible win in Austria at the season opener this year.
Both collisions were blamed rightly on Hamilton, so there is definitely an argument to say that Albon has been unlucky not to have been on the podium as a minimum.
But it was only luck that put him in those positions to challenge in the first place.
In Brazil, it was contact between two Ferraris and a mechanical retirement for Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes that ruled out three of the six front-runners, and caused safety cars, which tightened the pack and elevated Albon to second position in the closing stages.
In Austria, another late safety car brought Albon into play to challenge an otherwise dominant Mercedes team in the late stages on fresher tyres.
That, combined with Ferrari’s abysmal form in 2020 and Verstappen retiring early on, made Albon the only challenger to Mercedes by the time the safety car pulled in with a handful of laps to go.
Ultimately, though, Albon hasn’t proved to be much of an upgrade yet from where Gasly was a year ago and is coming under his own pressure with his future at the team not secured.
With pressure increasing on Albon, Red Bull are putting their arm around their young driver and maintaining their stance that he is the right man for the future.
He does seem genuinely popular within the team and his work ethic, level of intellect and general nice guy persona do help to ingratiate him to his team and bosses.
But while they are saying the right things, they don’t seem to be helping him in terms of race strategy at the moment.
In all the last three races Albon has ended up on an odd strategy, different from everybody else in the field.
In Barcelona, he was the only driver to use the unfancied hard tyre, and struggled to an eighth-placed finish, while in Belgium he was the only driver never to use the hard tyre that was preferred by everybody else.
Inevitably, he struggled to make it to the finish on the mediums on the long stint after the early safety car, and lost a place to Esteban Ocon’s Renault on the final lap. He was lucky the race wasn’t a lap or two longer or things would have been worse for him.
Red Bull are very capable of making great strategies work for their drivers.
Verstappen won the 70th anniversary Grand Prix on a different strategy to everybody else, and Daniel Ricciardo took a fantastic win for the team in China in 2018 when Red Bull seized on a late safety car to mix things up.
But right now Red Bull’s gambles seem to be failing for Albon and are only making his job even harder.
The choices that looked good for Albon in Brazil and Austria were obvious gambles where they had very little competition from behind and had everything to gain by throwing caution to the wind to attack Mercedes in the closing stages.
Right now, Albon isn’t capable of taking the fight to the top three, but the team seem to be giving him strategies that are a desperate measure to make a difference.
Verstappen might be able to pull off these alternative strategies or possibly Ricciardo in days gone by as well, but Albon is in a different position. He has got the pace of the upper midfield and so, rather than taking big steps to try niche, quirky strategies with him in conventional races, maybe they should focus on giving him more conventional races to build up better results and recover some confidence.
Albon is still young and has time to improve, and Red Bull are still backing him and hoping he will get there. But Gasly’s current performance seems only to be confusing matters right now.
In football, two of the best players in the Premier League right now, Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah, both had lacklustre early spells at Chelsea, before leaving for Italy and Germany after not quite making the grade.
Both then returned to the UK as world-class players after learning and improving away from the spotlight slightly.
It could be argued that Gasly could be an F1 equivalent.
Promoted and disappointing, but who’s to say that he hasn’t got his head into a better place at Alpha Tauri, worked on his craft and improved from the driver he was 12 months ago?
If the driver switch last year hadn’t happened, it would seem an obvious thing to do right now with the relative performances of Gasly and Albon.
And that begs a bigger question – why have both looked good in a Toro Rosso/Alpha Tauri and not in a Red Bull? Is it simply that Verstappen is that good? Or is there something else going on as well?
With the knee-jerk way Red Bull have been with regards to their drivers in recent years, you have to wonder what is left if Albon can’t raise his game.
The problem Red Bull have right now is that they seem to be as much a feeder team for Toro Rosso or Alpha Tauri as is the other way around right now, and they really can’t afford for Albon to go the same way.
But if the performance of Red Bull’s second car is solely down to the driver, then they must surely mix things up once more if Albon can’t improve and they want to challenge Mercedes in the future.
They missed out on Fernando Alonso, who is returning to F1 next year with Renault.
An Alonso-Verstappen line-up would surely have had Mercedes more concerned before next year.
But Red Bull’s insistence in sticking with their young driver programme seems to be their downfall since Ricciardo left.
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