The wait has been arduous since the Supercars championship last turned a wheel in anger at the Townsville SuperSprint in July, with the COVID-19 pandemic having halted the series due to states and territories locking down in response to outbreaks.
In Formula One, as in all professions, you know you’re in trouble when even your colleagues start making fun of you.
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen were in jovial moods after duelling for victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Briton, equipped with a clever strategy to outfox the Dutchman, prevailed over the polesitter in the final laps of the race to confirm his iron grip on the championship, but Red Bull Racing’s strong pace gave the team plenty to smile about heading into the midseason break.
It was race good enough to impress even two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, whose congratulatory tweet soon captured the celebratory post-race attention.
Bravo @LewisHamilton and @Max33Verstappen !! Pushing 70 laps to the maximum. More than 1 minute to the 3rd , nearly +1lap and a half to the top 5. Both Impressive. Thanks for the show ????????????????????????????????????????
— Fernando Alonso (@alo_oficial) August 4, 2019
“That’s really awesome he’s supportive,” Hamilton said. “If he can get a good seat, he’s always welcome here to battle with us.”
Verstappen added, “Yeah, I think it was a bit of a shame that I never had an opportunity to fight against him.”
But Hamilton had a point to make.
“Could be a good teammate for you!” he said. “The sport needs the best drivers in the best seats, and there is still at least a seat available that’s good enough for winning — and he’s good enough for winning, so it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
“Maybe he could speak to Toto [Wolff, Mercedes principal],” Verstappen replied innocently.
“You’re the one with the extra seat, I would say!” Hamilton brutally fired back.
Of course, Pierre Gasly wasn’t on hand to defend himself, but then he hasn’t been within a sniff of the podium all season.
Gasly is perhaps the most significant disappointment of 2019, and as Red Bull Racing has grown in strength to become Mercedes’ closest challenger, the Frenchman’s inadequacy has become only clearer and more painful.
To date, Gasly has scored only 63 points, a fraction of Verstappen’s 181 and only five more than McLaren’s Carlos Sainz. The gap to his teammate is substantially more than the 44-point margin separating Red Bull Racing from Ferrari in second place on the constructors’ championship table.
And while one could point to Red Bull’s slow start as part of the problem, the last month of racing, comprising the Austrian, British, German and Hungarian grands prix, has been particularly illustrative of Gasly’s deleterious presence.
In that time, Red Bull has won two races and captured one pole position to score 107 points. Mercedes has scored 100 points, while Ferrari has scored only 60 points.
But consider also that in that same stretch of four grands prix, Verstappen was the highest-scoring driver, taking home 81 points to Hamilton’s 63, while Gasly collected only 26.
While no single race makes an entire season, the Hungarian Grand Prix was a great exemplar of Gasly’s year. On a weekend his teammate took pole, led most of the race, and finished second on strategy, Gasly qualified sixth — behind both Ferrari drivers, who were notably slower — fell to ninth at the start, and finished behind Carlos Sainz, whose McLaren team is effectively racing in a lower category.
And at the risk of overemphasis, consider these devastating statistics:
There’s no sugar-coating it: Gasly’s having an absolute shocker.
While it would’ve been unfair to assume he was going to operate close to Verstappen’s level, expectations were naturally far higher for Pierre than this. His debut F1 season last season comprised some notable highs with Toro Rosso, and he was expected to build on those to become a consistent pointscorer and a competent wingman.
He’s meeting neither of those key selection criteria, and the strain is clearly showing.
“Obviously not having two cars running at the front does hurt us, particularly in the constructors’ championship, where we scored the same amount of points as Ferrari today on a track where we should have taken more out of them,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner exasperatedly lamented.
“It’s vital for us if we are to stand any chance of catching Ferrari that we have him finishing further ahead.
“We shouldn’t be racing Saubers and McLarens. We need him to be racing Ferraris and Mercedes, and everything we can do to help him to achieve that is what we will do.
“Our intention is to leave him the car until the end of the year, but we desperately need to see him realising more of the potential of the car.”
The only thing keeping Gasly in his seat at the infamously ruthless team is a lack of available alternatives, but this defence has a natural expiry at the end of the season, after which the team must look elsewhere if it’s to build to a title tilt in 2020.
It’s a shame to say for a driver who obviously has — or had — potential, but the Frenchman’s future at Red Bull Racing isn’t a matter of if or even when; it’s only a matter of who, and as soon as the right candidate is secured, Gasly will surely be gone.