As the embers begin to die down in the Formula 1 driver silly season for 2019, one of the main points of focus is the remaining Toro Rosso seat.
With Daniil Kvyat confirmed for a return and Pierre Gasly moving up to Red Bull in place of Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull has been working to settle on who will take the second seat for next year given its shortage of eligible juniors.
Rumours about Brendon Hartley’s future have been present since as early in the year as Spain, with Toro Rosso understood to have made an approach to McLaren for Lando Norris a couple of races later in Canada. All the while, Hartley has kept his head down, focusing on improving his on-track displays and stressing that he has a valid contract to race for Toro Rosso next year. F1 being F1, that is far from being concrete.
But the Mexican Grand Prix weekend saw tensions at Toro Rosso flare up, all surrounding some press release quotes regarding a broken floor on Gasly’s car at the United States Grand Prix.
Both Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko and Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost have made clear that if Hartley wishes to retain his seat for next year, he must improve his performances. Tost was given the chance to back his driver in Friday’s FIA press conference, when he was asked directly about Hartley’s points-scoring display in Austin - only for him to turn the question around.
“He showed a good race in Austin, but nevertheless, if you look to the results, he has four points, Pierre has 28 points. That means he has to improve his performance if he wants to stay in the team,” Tost said.
A positive question had been given a negative response, again casting doubt on Hartley’s future. Paddock consensus is that the decision - which Tost said will be taken in December - has already been made, with Formula 2 racer Alexander Albon being lined up to replace Hartley, so long as he can be freed from his Nissan Formula E deal.
Gasly has been used as the yardstick for Hartley throughout the year, prompting him to talk up his performances in relation to the 2019 Red Bull driver. After the race in Austin last weekend, a relatively open TV pen question regarding Hartley’s race finished with him referring to “annoying” questions about his future, before pointing out how he was ahead of Gasly in Singapore before team orders, ahead in Russia before the car broke down, ahead in qualifying in Suzuka and ahead in Austin.
Hartley did the same again on Friday in Mexico after finishing an impressive sixth in practice, when he was asked if the updated aero package added to his car could help him keep his seat.
“I’ve improved all season, and I haven’t always been given the opportunity in the races with having a strategy that would help the other car,” Hartley said.
“I’ve been very close in qualifying but just missing out, and that being the difference between points. I feel like I have got stronger all season, I proved that in Austin.
“Despite what it says in the press release, there was nothing wrong with the other car in the race. I simply did a very good performance and was very happy to score those two points.”
It was a throwaway comment, but it put the spotlight on the brewing tensions at Toro Rosso.
The press release after the race in Austin had seen both Gasly and Tost discuss the floor damage his car had sustained. “We took some debris after the chaotic first lap and that damaged the floor a bit, after that I was just trying to do everything I could from inside the car, but there was a massive loss of grip for the rest of the race,” Gasly said.
Tost commented how Gasly “went straight at Turn 5 on the first lap to prevent a collision with the cars that crashed in front of him, and unfortunately damaged the floor.
“As a consequence, his car lost downforce and was quite unstable under braking, so he could not be able to catch up to the rest of the field. Nevertheless, he finished the race in P12.”
Hartley’s insinuation was that this was an excuse for Gasly’s poor result, meaning the 26-second gap between them at the chequered flag was genuine.
After a request for clarification, Toro Rosso said it stuck to what it had put in its press release regarding the damage to Gasly’s car, meaning Hartley’s assertion had not come from additional information coming to light - or at least if it had, the team wasn’t saying so.
Predictably, the topic came up after qualifying in Mexico on Saturday. And predictably, it seemed Hartley had been given a talking to.
When I asked him about the matter, he said: “No comment. No comment.” Then when asked if he still stood by his comment about the floor, he replied: “I’m not allowed to comment.”
Gasly, meanwhile, was happy to talk about how his floor had been broken, going into some detail. “Basically on Lap 1, when I saw the crash with Stroll and Alonso, I had to avoid it, completely cut the track in Turn 4 I think. So I have a pretty big jump, there was a big hole there,” he explained.
“That was the first impact there, and then after the back straight, when Charles spun with Grosjean, there was a big piece of carbon that everyone avoided in front of me, and I took it straight like under the floor.
“After that, the balance was a lot more oversteery, and it was difficult. It impacted the tyre degradation, the balance, all these things, and the performance of the race.”
Gasly was quite open about the matter; Hartley, meanwhile, had shut down. Yet there wasn’t really a need for him to try and point out just how much better he was than Gasly in Austin. The result spoke volumes, with his perfectly-executed race gaining two deserved points, even if it had only been for 11th on the road. Regardless of the circumstances, Hartley had been better.
While Hartley would not talk about the floor, he did, however, once again go into great detail about just how closely-matched he and Gasly have been this year, as well as explaining just why he had become a little more outspoken in recent times.
“Well, I have to keep answering questions about my immediate future. I guess I’ve realised I always have to defend myself a little bit, and during the season,” Hartley said.
“There are lots of things that I don’t always mention, and just felt like I maybe needed to stand up a bit for myself sometimes and fight for my cause, which I’m doing.”
And how about his relationship with Gasly? After a session that had seen Hartley complain about his teammate backing him up, asking “what the fuck” over team radio, was this a sign that things had deteriorated since the start of the season?
“I don’t think much has changed to be honest,” Hartley said. “I wasn’t saying [it about] him, it was more I didn’t want to have to go even slower than I was in the last sector which lost tyre temperature. It wasn’t his fault really, to be honest.”
While Hartley may not have shone much light on his relationship with his teammate, Gasly was a little more open - perhaps in what he didn’t say as opposed to what he did.
“I always try to be friends with my teammates. After some time, some of them like it, some others try not to be friends,” Gasly said.
“I think on my side, at the end of the day, I’ve been always nice with Brendon. He’s under a lot of pressure, so at the moment he seems to look at things in a different way than at the beginning of the season, but I don’t really pay attention to that. I just focus on my job.
“At the end of the day, it’s true that it’s always a big fight between teammates, but you need to know how to work together because that’s the most important for the overall performance of the team, and for both of us.”
Addressing Hartley’s comments about his floor, Gasly said: "At the moment, he says a lot of things. So I don’t think I need to comment.”
The curious case of Gasly’s broken floor is rather mundane in reality, yet it has perfect shown the way relations at Toro Rosso appear to be breaking down for Hartley. He has certainly come on in leaps and bounds this year, perfectly exemplified by his Austin display, but his failure to put together a complete weekend on a consistent basis has cost him.
While Hartley may remain publicly hopeful of his chances of staying at Toro Rosso next year, it’s looking increasingly unlikely. And it’s unlikely this latest incident has done his cause any favours.