Alpine was a bit stuck when Fernando Alonso decided to switch to Aston Martin in 2023, then their reserve Oscar Piastri decided McLaren wanted to make its F1 debut.
It was a frustrating position for the French team, not least because they have the fourth best car on the grid and are leading the pursuit of the top three teams, which should be an attractive position.
Luckily Alpine had some good options despite being late in the season and set about pursuing their primary target, Pierre Gasly, who I’m told has long been on their wish list for the future.
READ MORE: Gasly set to race alongside Ocon for Alpine in 2023
The Frenchman was signed with the Red Bull family until late 2023 but Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer risked his arm and called AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost to test the waters.
“I said to Franz: ‘Look, we have a hole and see a future for Pierre in our team. You only have him for a short time and after that I’m not sure what the future holds for him there as he’s been to Red Bull and back,'” says Szafnauer as we chat exclusively about Gasly’s arrival.
Otmar Szafnauer “very happy” to sign Pierre Gasly on a multi-year contract with Alpine
“Franz was dismissive, that gave me a good feeling! He said: “Pierre is a great driver, I don’t want to give him up”, which is great, it was right to hear that. I said to Franz: “Thanks, I expected that, but I’ll call Helmut [Marko, Red Bull Motorsport Advisor] also. He was good at it and said, “Sure, go ahead.”
“Helmut was more receptive to the idea and we started talking about how that could happen. With Pierre we have a fast driver with good experience.”
EXCLUSIVE: Gasly on joining Alpine, leaving the Red Bull family and his relationship with Ocon
Red Bull stand aside after sorting a replacement
Red Bull could see what a great opportunity Alpine was for Gasly and didn’t want to stand in his way as the likelihood of him being promoted to their factory team in the future was slim to non-existent.
But they had to find a good driver to replace Gasly, whom they partially kept with the team because he was a strong and suitable option to fill in for Max Verstappen or Sergio Perez if necessary.
When it was clear that Mercedes reserve Nyck De Vries was available, they agreed with Alpine to end Gasly’s contract a year early so he could join Alpine on a multi-year deal.
READ MORE: AlphaTauri announce Nyck de Vries for 2023 alongside Tsunoda
“It’s important for the team to have a driver like Pierre who is both experienced and fast,” says Szafnauer. “Once we had that hole, he was at the top of our list – but we weren’t sure if he was available so it feels good to kind of make him available and make things right.”
Szafnauer admits he didn’t know Gasly well personally but had followed his career with interest and liked how he dealt with his demotion from Red Bull to Toro Rosso in 2019.
“I saw him win the GP2 championship [in 2016], not from afar, but to be in Formula 1 and to watch like me,” says Szafnauer. “After that, I watched closely how he reacted to being cycled up and down at Red Bull, being promoted and then demoted.
RISE OF THE ROOKIE: How GP2 title and Super Formula success paved Pierre Gasly’s path to F1
“I was a competitor back then and I was impressed by how he came back to Toro Rosso and how he did. It didn’t reach him. It looked like it motivated him – that alone impressed me.”
Gasly and Ocon put past tensions behind them
Gasly and Ocon have known each other since they were six, but they haven’t always had the easiest of relationships, and tensions between the two grew as they moved down the motorsport ladder.
Not ideal for F1’s latest partnership. But I’ve spoken to both of them independently and neither believe working alongside each other will be a problem as they see previous problems as water under the bridge.
Szafnauer has experience managing stuck riders, having had to step in several times when Ocon and Sergio Perez clashed at Force India – but he doesn’t expect the same problems with his new pairing.
LONG READ: Otmar Szafnauer on taking the reins at Alpine, the team’s 100-race roadmap and his departure from Aston Martin
“It may require a bit of management, but not much,” he says. “They’re both professionals, we’re all adults, and when you’re faced with a situation, that’s what we have to do, we have to work together as professionals to improve the team. I am sure that will happen.”
He adds with a smile: “I have had good experiences [of managing drivers who don’t get on] and I know some of the techniques we’ve used in the past, what has worked and what hasn’t worked, and how we should proceed going forward.”
Pierre Gasly confirmed at Alpine for 2023
Alpine cracking with a 100-race plan
Gasly’s signing draws a line under a difficult few months in terms of riders and allows Alpine to turn the page and start a new chapter in their 100-race roadmap to becoming race win and championship contenders.
Szafnauer has been in the midst of a reorganization since joining the team earlier this year – and while he’s made progress, he acknowledges they still have work to do. Gasly’s signing means he can fully focus on this strategy again.
EXCLUSIVE: Alpine boss Rossi on the loss of Piastri and Alonso, the hunt for a new rider and a bright future
“The plan is starting to look the way I want it to,” he says. “Implementation will take time, there are still some things I want to implement, but now that I’ve been there for six or seven months I have a better understanding of what’s needed, from the pros of the team and some areas that are needed to be improved.
“That’s not to say the people there aren’t competent – they are. It’s just missing some skills that aren’t there – areas that need improvement – and it takes time to hire the right people with the skills we don’t have, but I will do that.”
He adds: “We have two great riders in Esteban and Pierre and we have about 80 races ahead of us to win and fight for the championship and be regular podium contenders – and I see them both as part of this journey.”