Pierre Gasly has arguably been one of the standout drivers of 2021 so far. Whilst AlphaTauri have not yet achieved consistency with their car - given that the promise of early races was followed by weaker showings, such as the Spanish Grand Prix - Gasly has often put in an impressive performance regardless. The Frenchman has scored points at every event so far barring the opening race in Bahrain, where he was forced to retire due to a mechanical issue.
Additionally, Gasly has seemingly taken the role of a team leader following the arrival of rookie teammate Yuki Tsunoda. Whilst Tsunoda has made mistakes both on and off the track, AlphaTauri have been able to rely on Gasly in both respects; his race craft has been solid, and he has displayed maturity when out of the car.
An example of this occured when Tsunoda came under fire for critical comments made about the team following a tough qualifying in Barcelona. Whilst the Japanese driver was quick to apologise for the remarks, Gasly showed understanding.
"Yuki obviously had a tough qualifying yesterday, and he is quite emotional," the Frenchman told RacingNews365.com and other select media. "So I think it’s a bit of emotional control. But he’s also young and I believe he will learn and improve on this side of things."
With this continued development in his fourth full-time season as an F1 driver, it is unsurprising that Gasly has found himself at the centre of speculation regarding his prospects of moving to a leading team from the mid-pack AlphaTauri. This is perhaps a sensitive topic when it comes to Gasly; after starting his career in Formula 1 with Red Bull's junior team, the 25-year-old was promoted to the main outfit in 2019. Yet things did not go to plan, resulting in Gasly being demoted back down to the sister squad before the year was out.
Such a blow would be difficult for any young driver to recover from. But Gasly built himself back up in style in 2020, culminating in his unexpected win at the Italian Grand Prix, and this strong form has continued since, as was seen in his recent podium result in Azerbaijan.
The Frenchman clearly feels at home at AlphaTauri, yet there seems to be a predicament here. If Gasly wants to progress in Formula 1, the chances of his current team enabling him to become a regular race winner seem unlikely. As such, the logical step would be to a bigger team - but is this likely, and if so, who would it be?
Perhaps the obvious step for Gasly would be back to Red Bull, and the man himself has previously hinted that he would like to continue his F1 career within the drinks manufacturer's stable.
"Personally, I'm in Formula 1 to fight at the top," Gasly told RacingNews365.com and other select media in April. "I'm working every day to be the best driver I can to one day fight for championships, fight more consistently for podiums and for wins.
"That's the ultimate target. I hope it happens with Red Bull. I'm in Formula 1 thanks to Red Bull, so I'm really grateful for that. At the moment I'm still contracted with them, so that's the goal."
However, there have been doubts cast about the likelihood of Gasly returning to a team that so brutally demoted him. Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko for one does not seem to be entertaining the idea of the Frenchman coming back to the leading team, claiming that the combination at AlphaTauri is working well.
"At AlphaTauri, the package fits perfectly, the combination goes well together," Marko told Auto Motor und Sport.
"Pierre is the ideal ambassador for AlphaTauri as the slightly fashionable French. Above all, however, the performance in the car is strong."
Gasly's chances of a seat at Red Bull have surely been dealt another blow given the improving performance of Sergio Perez. If the Mexican maintains this level, it seems logical for the squad to retain his services alongside Max Verstappen.
Gasly has not yet been mentioned as being in contention for a seat at Mercedes, and ultimately it seems that the Silver Arrows would be more likely to opt for one of their junior drivers for a future step-up to the team. This has been clear from recent speculation linking both George Russell and Esteban Ocon to an opportunity with the World Champions.
Mercedes can probably be crossed off the list, then.
In some respects, the idea of Gasly and Ferrari uniting could make sense. Gasly lives in Italy - where AlphaTauri are based - and has previously spoken of how much he enjoys residing in Milan.
"I always loved Italy since I was little," the Frenchman told Crash.net in 2019 following his return to the then-called Toro Rosso team. "When you’re in karting, you spend a lot of time there at all the Italian tracks. I did spend a lot of time there. I like the weather, the food, the passion that all the people have."
Such an attitude would surely be a good fit at Ferrari, one of Italy's most beloved sporting names. Gasly is also close friends with current Scuderia driver Charles Leclerc, so a healthy team rapport would not be a problem.
However, with the current line-up of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz proving a promising long-term option for the team, it may be a while until an opportunity could arise in the red car.
Like Mercedes, McLaren seems to be another no-go - the team have secured their future for beyond 2021, with both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo having multi-year contracts.
Any opportunities at the Woking-based outfit seem unlikely for a long time.
Perhaps the team most commonly speculated as a possible destination for Gasly is Alpine. Alongside the obvious fact that the combination of a French driver and French team is probably an attractive one to both parties, Alpine seem to be showing a continued improvement in performance in 2021. This could surely offer Gasly the chance to work towards regularly challenging for wins.
Yet Alpine have suggested that they are not considering Gasly just yet, given that their priority is to see whether current driver Esteban Ocon can be retained alongside Fernando Alonso.
"We're not looking at any drivers for next year," Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi told RacingNews365.com amongst others in May. "Because at the moment I'm obviously considering Esteban.
"Fernando is here next year with us, so if we want to carry on on the momentum we have, we'll do that. Pierre is obviously a great driver of value, but at the moment this is not on our cards, I would say."
The most likely scenario where Gasly could join, then, would be if Ocon were to leave, say to Mercedes. This would open up an ideal slot for another promising French driver to race in the Alpine. However, with much previous speculation linking George Russell to a possible Mercedes seat above Ocon, it seems that Ocon would be likely to stay at the former Renault outfit in that situation.
Meanwhile Alonso is set to remain with the team in the long-term. Even if the possibility is entertained of Gasly replacing the Spaniard in the future should the double World Champion choose to leave, the combination of Gasly and Ocon may not necessarily work. Both have spoken in the past of the fact that they are no longer friends, despite being close during their younger karting days.
Stay at AlphaTauri?
All of this highlights the difficulties that Gasly may face in finding a suitable opportunity to move up the grid. There are some who believe that the Frenchman would actually be better suited to remaining with AlphaTauri, given that the Italian outfit is seemingly an environment that he thrives in.
F1 pundit Tom Clarkson - who conducts the driver press conference interviews at Grand Prix weekends - has questioned whether Gasly performs better in a smaller team.
"I think Gasly is a wonderful racing driver, but I wonder if he is a small team driver," Clarkson told the F1 Nation podcast. "He loves being the big fish in the small pond."
Damon Hill is optimistic that Gasly will eventually find an opportunity with a bigger team, but believes he will have to wait it out.
"I think it will eventually [happen] for Pierre, because I think Pierre has got that slightly star quality to him," the former F1 driver added. "He's definitely showing that.
"I can see Gasly having an opportunity in a top team, maybe not Red Bull, because Max [Verstappen] is there. Max could be there for the next 20 years.
"The whole musical chairs problem with Formula 1 is a real thing, and sometimes young drivers have to be patient. Look how long Sergio [Perez] has had to wait.
"Pierre Gasly is going to have to be patient. This is the hard thing in this sport, is being patient when you're young."
There is clearly no doubting Gasly's potential. But, as is the situation facing other promising young drivers, opportunities at top teams seem few and far between in the current era. It will be fascinating to see which steps the Frenchman takes next; given that his F1 career so far has already been something of a rollercoaster, surely Gasly is the ideal candidate for riding out the ups and downs of the waiting game.