Pierre Gasly: “All of the emotions hit when I crossed that line…”

Last year, the 25-year-old racing driver won his first Formula One Grand Prix. Here, he explains why it's the first of many...

The first time Pierre Gasly saw a French racing driver win a Formula One grand prix, he was three-months-old. It was 1996, and Olivier Panis took the chequered flag in Monaco. Baby Gasly, presumably; overjoyed. Little did little Pierre know that it would be almost 25 years until another French driver grasped a grand prix win. Even more surprising was that he’d be the baby to do it.

Because, last September, a grown-up Gasly took his first Formula One victory at Monza’s Italian Grand Prix. He had started the race tenth on the grid — but, thanks to careful cornering, a well-timed pit-stop and some keen Gallic grit, he tore across the finish line triumphant. In some ways, the victory was completely unexpected. In others, it was destined to happen — as Gasly’s motorsport-mad family have been winning for years.

“Even my grandmother!” reveals the racing driver. “She was a regional karting champion, which always makes people laugh because it’s quite unusual. My grandfather, also, was a big, big fan of motorsport in general — he loved cars, the same as my father and my brothers.”

Gasly, speaking from his new flat in Milan, admits that he prizes family above all else — even those precious grand prix wins. He considers friends, parents and siblings “essential” and, when I ask him how he’d most like to be perceived by his fans and followers, his answer is disarmingly wholesome; “caring”. But, like most successful sportsmen, Gasly grew up relying on his parents to support his passion. So what was it like, growing up a petrol-powered, high-octane racer who wasn’t always in the driving seat?

“It was unusual, let’s say that,” says the racing driver of his fast-paced, challenging childhood. At 13-years-old, Gasly moved to a private school, before completing his final two years of study with personal tutors. The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile even assembled ‘classes’ for young drivers during championships — meaning that Gasly learnt everything from mathematics to modern languages alongside other top-flight future professional drivers.

“And I think all of that forced me to mature early on in life,” reasons the racer. “The mental pressure on me as a kid was huge. My family didn’t have the money to pay for my seasons, so I depended on sponsors — and because I never knew if my parents would find the sponsors to continue, it was essential that I kept on performing well and winning races.

“There’s still a lot of pressure,” he adds, “but I’m used to it now. Now I know that I’m in Formula One, I’m less stressed than I was as a kid. I hardly feel it anymore — it’s just part of the sport.”

Gasly first karted at the age of six, competing nationally before qualifying to the French F4 Championship, the Formula Renault Eurocup and, eventually, the Renault 3.5 Series. It was after this last career lane-change than he was spotted by the Red Bull Junior Team.

“At that time,” says Gasly, “everybody told me that, out of all the drivers in the world, only 20 drive in Formula One. So the probability that I’d get to Formula One was ‘impossible’. That’s what 90% of people told me. But that just gave me more energy. Because nothing is impossible — and I wanted to prove them wrong.”

So he did. In 2015, Red Bull Racing signed Gasly as a reserve driver for its Formula One team. By 2017, he had moved to Red Bull’s sister team, Toro Rosso, and it was under that bright red banner that the French racer made his Formula One debut. Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit hosted Gasly’s first race as a championship competitor — an experience he remembers with a whisper; “It was like a dream”.

But, despite working his way up the grid — an action-packed second place at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix was a particular highlight of Gasly’s early career — a global pandemic conspired against the young Frenchman. Just one race after his first podium, Formula One shut down.

“Back in May,” recalls Gasly, “it looked like we wouldn’t race at all last year. So it was amazing when we were still able to race in many different countries, especially looking at the overall situation. It was hard for the mechanics and engineers to travel and be locked in pretty much everywhere we went, but it was the only way to make the season possible — and they managed it. They did a fantastic job.”

"The mental pressure on me as a kid was huge..."

“But the last season was very intense,” he acknowledges, “as we had 17 races in 21 weeks. I was travelling all the time. And it was not fun. I love the races, but outside the track last year was very socially difficult. I couldn’t see my friends or family. I had to stay away from everyone to minimise risk. I would train every day for two hours, and then just go home.”

Unlike some of the other drivers on the Formula One grid, Gasly is an innately social creature. In fact, he enjoys company and camaraderie to such an extent that it’s a wonder he didn’t pursue a team sport over motor racing. (There was a brief flirtation with football, he admits, but nothing too serious). Lockdown, at least, has given Gasly the opportunity to toy with several new — or long-lapsed — hobbies.

“Yeah, I started some stuff,” he laughs. “I tried to learn Italian — but that still needs some improvement. I’m getting into piano now, and taking lessons for that. I also love the economy and stock market. I got into that during the lockdown, and it excites me a lot.

“I also love music,” he adds, “I always listen to music when I wake up. That’s why I want to learn piano. Whenever I’m on a flight, I’ll listen to everything — except rock music. Depending on my mood, I’ll listen to most things. But, usually, American rap.”

Like fellow Formula One driver George Russell, Gasly spent much of lockdown locked into simulated racing games. He even took part in the Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans — after seeing other professional drivers getting involved.

“Honestly, I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would,” he admits. “I do game quite a lot, everything from simulator racing to Call of Duty. But it’s more of a hobby — and I don’t take it all too seriously. That’s why I don’t think simulator racing will ever replace motorsport in general. I is becoming very, very big, however. And I understand why — because it’s so much fun! I love doing it.

“But will it ever replace the feeling of going at 315 kph in a Formula One car?” he asks. “Racing the coolest cars around the best racetracks in the world? No.”

Gasly’s thirst for competition is insatiable. It’s a good thing that he found virtual racing during lockdown, because sitting still — or worse, playing passively — was never going to be an option for the 25-year-old.

“I need competition at all times in my life!” he laughs again. “I’ll always ask my friends to play something with me — PlayStation, tennis, football, cards — just so I can beat them!

“I’d actually love to do a road trip soon with my friends,” Gasly adds, “somewhere with an incredible landscape — maybe the Amalfi Coast. I own a Honda NSX. I love Ferraris, Lamborghinis — just sporty, crazy cars in general — but I’d always wanted an NSX and I’m very happy with it. I love going to the mountains. I quite often go to the Alps with it, as there are excellent roads there. Last year, I went to Lake Como — it was fantastic.”

It’s almost jarring to hear Gasly segue into car-speak. He may be one of the best racing drivers in the world but — again, unlike many of his fellow sportsmen — he has genuine interests and passions outside of the sport. He’s more like Lewis Hamilton; determined that his day job will not govern every inch and minute of his wider life. What other talents, then, is Gasly be hiding beneath his bonnet?

“It’s not really a talent,” Gasly considers, “more of an interest — but I love interior design. I’m always looking for stuff to design either for my own apartment or my family’s places. I’m pretty creative, and have thousands of ideas. And design is an area where I can explore different styles, which I love. Because I love fashion, too. I follow a lot of fashion with AlphaTauri.”

AlphaTauri, established in 2016, is Red Bull’s fashion brand. With stores in Graz, Salzburg and a comprehensive range of clothes (Gasly is wearing the label in every shot you see here), constant exposure to AlphaTauri through sponsorship and merchandise has given Gasly a rare insight into the fashion industry. And it’s been an experience he’s thoroughly enjoyed.

“I started to learn more about fashion, designing clothes and how they’re made,” says Gasly. “And fashion, for me, is like music. Some days I only want to listen to certain types of music — and some day I might want to wear only one particular style, like streetwear or something oversized. But then, on other days, I’ll wake up and want to put on a suit and look classy. It depends on how I’m feeling, and the mood I’m in.

“But I couldn’t live without my holey black jeans,” he confesses. “Along with my white sneakers, I take them everywhere I go. I’ve also got this cross necklace, which I have with me at all times. I quite like jewellery for guys; necklaces, bracelets and accessories like that.”

All this talk of experimental fashion and men’s jewellery sounds very European — and couture isn’t the racing driver’s only traditionally French passion. Would you believe it; Gasly’s also a gastronome.

“I love good food. And my dad is such a great cook. But I’m terrible,” he laughs. “It’s something I definitely need to improve on. Unfortunately, now I’m doing my intensive training camp for the season, eating is extreme. We calculate everything — calories, fats, carbs, protein. I’m set a number of calories per day and we have a company that makes all of our meals for us. That’s because we have a weight limit for the car — and I can’t go over 73 kilograms.”

That is extreme. But these are the levels of dedication and determination necessary if you want to win. And Gasly, after getting a taste of gold last September, really wants to win. Almost every day since he stood atop that podium in Monza, the racing driver has replayed the day over and over again in his head.

“I need competition at all times in my life!”

“That morning,” he says, “on the race weekend, was already unique — because I slept at home. That’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve slept in my own apartment before a race. It was so weird, because I was in my own home, taking my morning cup of coffee — and, five hours later, I was racing.”

The rest of the day, as can only be expected, is a bit of a blur. Gasly recalls snippets — which he shares, acting them out down the phone line with blistering drama and urgency. It was the final stretch, he says, that will remain with him forever.

“All of the emotions hit as soon as I crossed that line,” he says. “And, when I was on the podium, I heard the French national anthem play — for the first time in 24 years. To me, it was a significant relief that I managed to win. I’d got my first one. But I’m looking to the future — and I want those emotions again. Many times.

“Because, when I was a kid, I dreamt about Formula One, and winning in Formula One. And it just happened — when nobody expected me to win. It was incredible. It was my dream, and that day it came true.”

Gasly will return to the track in Bahrain on 28 March — and in Drive to Survive on Netflix on March 19. See what else is heading to the streaming service here…

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