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Red Bull can't ignore the Gasly question any more

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Why Pierre Gasly's GP win will cause a headache for Red Bull (2:00)

Alexis Nunes and Nate Saunders discuss what Pierre Gasly's first ever F1 win means for his future. (2:00)

After crossing the finish line, celebrating with his mechanics, lifting the winners' trophy and spraying champagne, Pierre Gasly finally had a moment to himself on top of the Monza podium. In the space of less than an hour, his day had gone from a routine midfield finish to the defining moment of his career to date.

As of 5pm on Sunday afternoon, he was a Formula One race winner.

As fellow podium finishers Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll walked back to the paddock, Gasly took a seat on the top step of the famous Monza podium and stared down the kilometre-long start-finish straight. The track below him should have been filled with fans chanting his name, but instead he was given a rare opportunity in Formula One to pause and take it all in.

"I sat down there on the podium and had a lot of things crossing my mind," he said on Sunday evening. "First of all, I thought of my family, my friends, my brothers and all these people who supported me and just kept pushing me the whole time.

"And you just remember everything you've been through. I was just trying to imagine all of these people down from the podium, all the tifosi that should be there. It was a very special moment.

"It's been a crazy ride in the last few months and it's just unbelievable. I'm still struggling to realise what we've just achieved."

Achievements are always relative to where you start, and one year ago Gasly was at rock bottom. Ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix last year, he was demoted from Red Bull to Toro Rosso after just 12 races at the senior team and then had to process the death of his close friend Anthoine Hubert in a Formula 2 race. Twelve months on, he says he is still struggling with the latter.

Hubert had been one of the first people to call him after the news of his demotion broke. It's rare teams change their driver line-ups for performance reasons midway through a season, but it seemed Red Bull's management had lost faith in Gasly.

Exactly what happened to Gasly during those 12 races at Red Bull at the start of 2019 remains a mystery, and it is even harder to unpick now that we've seen what the 24-year-old Frenchman has been capable of since. In just his eighth race back at the junior Red Bull team, Gasly scored his first podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix and in his 16th race back at the team he took his victory at Monza.

So, how has he done it?

"As a child, I had to work through quite difficult moments, which built me a pretty strong character and I always had to fight for everything I wanted," Gasly said. "I always, in some way, managed to turn that negative energy into something positive and I knew last year what happened, deep inside me, obviously I felt hurt and I didn't feel it was fair to myself and I really wanted to make a clear point in that moment.

"But look, I know I'm fast, I know what I can do, I know I can believe, I've been fighting for victories, for pole, championships in my early years, in my career and that's what I want in F1. I really worked very hard with the team and I knew that with them I had everything in my hands to show my potential.

"After, I just tried to focus on my own performance, not really looking at the others, taking race after race, looking at what I can improve on my side, what I can improve with the team, with my engineers, just to extract more from myself and more from that package and combination and yeah, honestly I can't be happier with the team I have at the moment."

It is that attitude that is the most impressive part of Gasly's redemption story, but it begs the question of how a driver with such resilience found himself struggling at Red Bull in the first place. Much like his replacement, Alex Albon, is finding now, Gasly couldn't get close to Max Verstappen while they were teammates and failed to finish higher than fourth in the 12 races he had at Red Bull. With each passing missed opportunity, his head seemed to drop further, until it no longer looked like he was enjoying being a Formula One driver.

At the end of the year, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said the decision to demote Gasly was partly motivated by the desire to protect him from the pressures of underperforming at a top team. Arguably it worked as Gasly was able to rediscover his form at Toro Rosso (which went on to change names over the winter and become Alpha Tauri), but that required a great deal of mental strength in itself.

Gasly clearly has his own theory about his difference in performance while racing at the two teams but, presumably in the interests of keeping his job, has refused to talk about it in public.

"I think I know exactly why it didn't click there [at Red Bull]," he said as recently as the Belgian Grand Prix "And the thing that didn't work."

Asked if he could add more detail, he said: "Unfortunately not."

But regardless of the details of the last 12 months, which may never be aired in public, it's clear that the Pierre Gasly we see at Alpha Tauri this year is worthy of a second chance at a top team.

Why was Gasly's win so impressive?

It's clear that Gasly's win was a result of an unusual set of circumstances on Sunday. Had Kevin Magnussen's car broken down at another part of the track, the pit lane wouldn't have closed and race leader Lewis Hamilton wouldn't have been penalised when he erroneously called in by Mercedes.

Gasly, who in normal circumstances would have lost out when he pitted just before the Safety Car period, came out of the mid-race mayhem with a ticket to the podium thanks to the pit lane closing and the field bunching up. But the job was far from done at that stage and there were no guarantees that his ticket would take him to the top by the chequered flag.

Aside from the Alfa Romeos, the cars around Gasly's Alpha Tauri were all faster than his. On the evidence of the race so far, the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, restarting in eighth, should have been the fastest car in contention for victory, the McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, in sixth and seventh, were second fastest and Lance Stroll's Racing Point, starting second, was the third fastest. The Alpha Tauri, third on the grid for the restart, was the underdog.

Stroll took care of himself with a poor start from the dirty side of the grid, which had also given Bottas a slow getaway on lap one. He went on to lose another position to Sainz at the second Lesmo corner, which meant the order of cars without penalties hanging over them was Gasly, Raikkonen, Sainz, Stroll, Norris, Bottas.

It was clear that Raikkonen, who bizarrely was put on soft tyres by Alfa Romeo for the restart, would not last long at the front, so it was down to Gasly to pull as big a gap as he could early in the restarted race to give himself a cushion to the faster cars behind. By pushing hard on his tyres, he built a gap of four seconds over Sainz by the time the McLaren was up to second place, and then from lap 34 onwards the orange car in his mirrors started to loom larger and larger.

"I knew the closer Carlos was getting, the more slipstream he would get, so I knew he started around four seconds and then at three seconds which was probably the idea gap for the slipstream," Gasly said. "So he was going to get closer and closer. I tried to push as hard as I could in the corners on the tyres, which obviously means you have more degradation but it was my only way to make lap time.

"The last few laps I had big, big moments through the Lesmos, through Ascari, just trying to give everything because I could see him becoming bigger and bigger in my mirrors. I knew I was struggling with traction a lot in Turn One. So, there was one place he could try was either DRS the first chicane or the second chicane."

Sainz closed in, but the turbulent air coming off the back of Gasly's meant he was struggling to get within a second of the Alpha Tauri. Doing so was crucial for Sainz as it would give him the use of his Drag Reduction System to aid an overtaking move on the straights.

"As soon as I got to within 1.5s I started feeling that dirty air; I started feeling the car a lot more loose, a lot more difficult to get the lap time and the grip in the corners," Sainz said. "So, I was trying to maximise the tow, maximise everything I could but the car was starting to struggle a bit behind Pierre."

Gasly could see Sainz's charge start to falter, but a single mistake would still have been enough to give the McLaren a shot at the lead. Both drivers were managing the energy in their hybrid systems, knowing the full 160bhp boost it offers could be the difference between making or blocking an overtaking move.

That 160bhp boost is available for 33 seconds per lap, but the energy also needs to be harvested under braking, so keeping the battery topped up and only using the electrical boost when necessary was key. As the laps counted down, it became clear to both drivers that they would need a fully charged battery for a showdown on the final lap and with the help of a minor mistake from Gasly, Sainz got within a second of the Alpha Tauri.

"I saw he wasn't getting closer and closer once he got to 1.5s behind, except for that last lap," Gasly said. "I managed to save the energy, just to be able to defend in case he would try something.

"And yeah, we kept him behind but lucky the race wasn't much longer because with these tyres I think I didn't have any rubber left at the end. So, it was the right time to finish the race."

Behind him, all Sainz wanted was one more lap.

"Suddenly in the last lap and a half I saw him start doing the small mistakes that allowed me to get into the DRS," he said. "Then I crossed the line 0.4s behind, which would have given me a good run into Turn One if it was one lap more.

"But, unfortunately it wasn't one lap more and it is what it is. He did a tremendous job defending and I'm not going to say anything. I know I left nothing on the table. I think those 0.4s reflect very well what we both did and I think it's a good finish to the race."

But there wasn't another lap. Like all the greatest victories in F1 history, Gasly had measured the circumstances to perfection and crossed the line having left nothing in the car or the tyres.

"The last five laps were really hard and my tyres were completely gone," he said. "I was sideways in every corner and I could see Carlos slowly closing the gap.

"But I know myself and I would have been so pissed with myself if I would have lost that win in the last few laps. I just gave everything I had and I'm so happy I managed to get my first race win in Formula One."

What next for Gasly?

Prior to Sunday's result, questions were already being asked around the possibility of Albon and Gasly swapping seats again for next year. Albon's performances in his first full season with Red Bull have been on a similar level to Gasly's last year, although he has arguably shown more determination to turn poor qualifying results into good race results.

But Gasly has been operating on a higher level all round this year and on three occasions has outqualified Albon despite having the slower car. On five occasions he has also made the top ten in qualifying and after his win on Sunday, he currently sits eighth in the drivers' standings, just five points behind Albon in sixth.

Regardless of his struggles, Albon has retained the full backing of Red Bull while praise for Gasly has only come when it has been coaxed out the team's bosses. That may be because the Horner and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko have learned their lessons from Gasly's very public struggles last year or it may be a genuine belief that Albon is still the better long-term prospect.

But while the question could quite easily be kicked down the road before Gasly's victory at Monza, it is now front and centre as Red Bull heads into the second half of F1's shortened season. Horner was not available to media after Sunday's race at Monza, but Gasly made a convincing case for why he should, at the very least, be considered.

"I think I'm ready, but it's not up to me to make that call," he said. "The only thing I've done since they moved me back to Toro Rosso has been just to focus on myself and just show what I can do.

"When I get the right tools in my hands, I'm really happy that the performance we've shown - and I'm not only talking about Brazil and Monza, but I think generally, we've been pretty strong most of the time. We've had some really strong qualifyings, really strong races since.

"We'll see what happens but I think there have been many, many strong drivers in Toro Rosso. I'm really happy to be one of the two [alongside Sebastian Vettel] that have managed to get a win for this team.

"Obviously I guess the strong results should be rewarded with something but we will see what happens. At the moment it's not something I really want to think about. I just want to enjoy this moment, because it's my first win in F1 and I will have time to think about this later."

Being a race winner is a huge advantage for Gasly in his future negotiations with Red Bull. There are only eight race winners on the grid this year and just four of them have won a race this season.

If he continues to perform on this level, regardless of whether good luck delivers more standout results, Red Bull will be hard pushed to ignore him as a candidate for a 2021 race seat.