One race into the 2018 Formula 1 season, and Toro Rosso-Honda hadn’t picked up any points in Australia. Next up was Bahrain, a circuit with long straights that require good top speed, while the high temperatures put even more emphasis on reliability.
The signs in practice were encouraging, but nobody dreamt what would happen next. Trouble for the frontrunners - with Max Verstappen crashing and Lewis Hamilton needing to replace his gearbox - meant Pierre Gasly qualified a stunning sixth fastest, promoted to fifth on the grid by Hamilton’s subsequent penalty.
Even better was to come in the race. Even with Hamilton fighting back, Pierre was not in the mood for a defensive drive and moved up to fourth when Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen retired. And a comfortable fourth he remained, taking the best result of his career to date.
Only once has Toro Rosso bettered that finish - courtesy of Sebastian Vettel’s incredible win in Monza over a decade ago - and team principal Franz Tost reflects on a landmark result for the new Toro Rosso-Honda partnership.
“The difficult start last year was not based on the power unit, this was a car issue because last year’s car was simply not competitive enough,” Tost recalls of the mood heading to Bahrain. “Therefore it was good to come up with this result in Bahrain for the confidence of the team and for the motivation of the people.
“I knew that in Bahrain we would be strong because we brought a new aero package there as well, but we must not forget that three of the top team cars, Kimi, Daniel and Max, didn’t finish the race. So normally we would have finished in seventh place.
“But nevertheless we took the chance and this proved decisive. We had a package to finish in seventh place and this would still have been a success, but of course fourth place was better!”
Fourth place looks like a surprise result in isolation, but the car was competitive all weekend as Pierre finished all three practice sessions in the top ten. Franz didn’t need long to be confident that it was a race in which the team could score some serious points, with one of the bigger question marks being how a rookie driver would fare under the pressure.
“When the race weekend started we felt that we had an opportunity. Also from the set-up we found some good points and that helped us to improve the performance in comparison to the race in Australia.
“Also Pierre did a fantastic job. He likes Bahrain. He mentioned it beforehand, he was also successful in GP2 there, and the mental side of a driver is very important. If he goes to a track where he had success in the past and a track that he likes, then it makes everything even easier.
“A driver being so young, being new to Formula 1, finishing the complete weekend in such a good position is a confirmation of his abilities because he was not only fast in the race. He was also fast in qualifying, very competitive, and he could start in fifth position.
“OK, Hamilton had his problem, he was behind us, but then you must deliver. You must deal with the pressure, and you must manage everything in the best possible way, and he did it. I must say, that weekend was a very, very strong weekend from Pierre.”
Pierre had never made it to Q3 before, but seamlessly progressed into the top ten shootout during qualifying. That doesn’t mean Franz was sitting comfortably as the session took place, though…
“I’ve been in Formula 1 for a hundred years and I still get nervous! It’s true. You think ‘Can we do it? Can we not do it? Hopefully we don’t make a mistake…’ and this all increases the pressure.”
There were muted celebrations after qualifying, as both Toro Rosso and Honda focused on Sunday’s race. So far, every opportunity had been taken, but the team was aware the biggest one was still to come.
In his role as team principal, Tost made sure to give off an impression of calmness before lights out, getting his driver and team focused on capitalising on the obvious potential within the car.
“On the grid I just told Pierre to try to get a good start because we knew that we had the pace and that it would not be easy to overtake. Even though we were in Bahrain and there is a very long straight, he could keep the position and finish in fourth place, which was a big success.
“Of course I was nervous on the pit wall though! I was counting the laps: ‘oh no, another 20 laps!’ And then you count them down. It felt like a long race. The better your position is, the longer the race seems to go on. You just pray ‘Can’t it be finished next lap?!’
“We were only one place outside the podium but I wasn’t thinking about that. The top three were too far away, and we were lucky anyway that three cars retired, so I was just hoping we could bring home the fourth position. Of course third would have been better, but we have to be realistic as well and we didn’t have the pace to be in the first three, they were far ahead of us.”
When the chequered flag dropped, then the festivities began, as Toro Rosso and Honda celebrated what was - until Max’s podium in Melbourne just over a week ago - the best result for us since our return to Formula 1.
“Yeah the emotions came out, we all were very satisfied because it was a very important result,” Tost smiles. “But once the flag dropped, then the pressure goes away and then it’s not so exciting anymore.
“It’s normal then. Normal life comes back and you start to think about the next race. After the flag I am not so emotional anymore, everything is normal. During the race and before the race I am, though!”
Franz may not have spent too long dwelling on the result at the time, but looking back a year later he acknowledges the significance of such a performance on not only the relationship between Toro Rosso and Honda, but the future alliance with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing too.
“For sure it was a confirmation also for Honda that working together with Toro Rosso was the right way to go. And it was a very, very important sign for Red Bull Racing as well for this season.
“It was always the plan that we would try to develop the power unit together with Honda and that, 2019, Honda should be able to fight for victories and the championship with Red Bull. We profit from this too, because the development speed and everything increased and Honda did a fantastic job during the winter months.
“Where we will end up, we will only see at the end of the season, but we’re heading in a good direction.”
Bahrain was one of the highlights of what proved to be a crucial season for the team, with Franz admitting the off-season was much easier from a partnership point of view given the lessons learned in the first year.
Returning to the scene of 2018’s best result, a repeat might be a lot to ask. But Franz is optimistic of a more consistently competitive year, thanks to an encouraging pre-season and first race weekend in Australia that yielded a top ten finish.
“I’m excited and I’m optimistic for this season. I think we have a good package. We have a competitive car, the power unit from Honda is good, we have two really strong drivers. I must say I am very positively surprised by the performance of (Alex) Albon. I expected a good performance but in Barcelona testing he showed some runs that were really very good.
“Daniil (Kvyat) has been doing a fantastic job and if he can repeat this in qualifying and the races I think he could come up with some positive surprises, as well as Alex. For me, Alex could become the positive young driver surprise of the year.
"That’s my way of thinking, my wish, but as for the reality, we will have to wait and see. You can remind me of these comments at the end of the season and reflect on what really went on!”