Twenty laps into Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton looked to be in cruise control after building a commanding lead at the front of the pack.
Victory in Monza would have moved him within one of Michael Schumacher’s record 91 Grand Prix wins, and another step closer to a seventh world title.
But such is the beauty of sport, nothing is certain until it actually happens.
An uncharacteristic error from Hamilton and Mercedes during a safety car deployment saw the Briton handed a 10-second stop-go penalty.
By the time Hamilton served his penalty for entering the pit wall when closed, he came out at the back in 17th.
That left Pierre Gasly – who started 10th on the grid and had never led a lap of an F1 race before – out in front and eyeing his first-ever victory.
Despite serious pressure from Carlos Sainz in second, Gasly put in a majestic drive to hold off the McLaren driver and spark wild celebrations in the Alpha Tauri garage.
It meant there was an Italian team victory at the Italian Grand Prix – just not the Ferrari one everyone would expect.
An unlikely podium was completed with Sainz in second – just 0.415 seconds behind – and Lance Stroll in third.
It has been a whirlwind 18 months for Gasly after clinching a shock victory in Monza.
After a break-out year at Toro Rosso in 2018, the 24-year-old was promoted to the main Red Bull team to partner Max Verstappen for the 2019 season.
While many expected him to pile the pressure on the Dutchman, it wasn’t a smooth transition by any means.
Gasly outshone Verstappen once in qualifying in 12 races, and that when Max was knocked out of Q1 in Canada.
On race day, the Rouen-native only gained the upper-hand on Verstappen once, when he collided with Sebastian Vettel in Silverstone.
In Spielberg, he even suffered the embarrassment of being lapped by eventual race winner Verstappen.
Despite public assurance that he would be given more time, Gasly was demoted back to Toro Rosso that August, with Alex Albon promoted in his place.
As disappointing as it might have felt – at the time – to be dropped, it has ended up being the best thing to happen to Gasly, securing a win and a podium since.
At Toro Rosso – now rebranded as Alpha Tauri – he has been able to enjoy his driving more without the repercussions of poor results and the added pressure of Verstappen as the favoured Red Bull driver.
He finished in the points on his first race back with Toro Rosso at Spa in September 2019, but it was overshadowed by the death of friend Anthoine Hubert in the F2 race.
Still coming to terms with the loss, he finished the season in fine fettle and a maiden podium was the reward at the Brazilian GP, coming home second to Verstappen.
Riding on the crest of a wave, Gasly had been one of the most impressive performers of the 2020 season, even prior to his victory on Sunday.
On an emotional return to Spa last weekend, one year since Hubert’s passing, Gasly was voted Driver of the Day for his thrilling drive to eighth. His sensational move on Sergio Perez into Eau Rouge was a stand-out feature of the race.
Now, on the back of his epic drive in Monza, he sits eighth in the drivers’ standings, just two points behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
His triumph in Italy also comes amid struggles for his Red Bull replacement Albon this campaign, the London-born Thai driver finished all the way back in 15th.
For now, all Gasly can do is focus on himself and try to get the best out of his inferior car. He has developed superbly over the past year and proven to be fast, consistent and measured.
Whether a promotion back to Red Bull comes or not, one wonders what he might achieve in a car worthy of his sparkling talents.
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