Oscar Piastri made plenty of Formula 1 headlines in 2022, a feat particularly impressive given he wasn’t even on the grid…
The Australian was Alpine’s reserve last year but turned down the chance of a race seat with the French team because he’d already signed a multi-year deal – for 2023 and 2024 – to make his F1 race debut for McLaren.
It was a bold move – but one Piastri and his management team, which includes former F1 title contender Mark Webber, felt he had to take.
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The 21-year-old won the F3 and F2 titles back-to-back in 2020 and 2021 respectively – only Charles Leclerc and George Russell have previously performed that trick – and was ready to step up to the big time.
One year as a reserve was okay but two, and maybe three – had Fernando Alonso stayed on at Alpine – was not an option. The fight between Alpine and McLaren over the summer means that there’s going to be a fair bit of attention on Piastri when the F1 racers hit the track in Bahrain for the first race.
Both Piastri and new McLaren team mate Lando Norris are taking the first chunk of January off to maximise their downtime and physical and mental training before F1’s longest-ever season.
Piastri opted to extend his stay in his native Australia but is pencilled to head back to the UK, where he has been living, to crack on with his new team around now.
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The Australian has some experience of the team and the latest generation cars already, having clocked 123 laps (more than two Grand Prix distances) around Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit at the end-of-season young driver test. It was an opportunity to spend some time with new team mate Norris, too, the Briton fulfilling the team’s Pirelli tyre testing duties on the same day.
But he now needs to ramp things up, which is why he’ll be spending the majority of his time either at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey, focused on little things like learning people’s names and getting acquainted with his new office, to more significant tasks like engineering and clocking up the hours in the simulators to consign the McLaren’s controls to muscle memory before he hits the track.
He'll also get some good time in old-spec machinery, too, as part of the Testing of Previous Cars (TPC) programme. Piastri has already had two days of running at Paul Ricard, but he is believed to have at least a couple more tests pencilled in before he gets to Bahrain.
I’m told he’s bedded in well with the engineers already and has come across as measured, keen and focused on hard work.
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McLaren are keen to play down expectations. They know that the pressure will be on for him to deliver given his pedigree, not just in the shadow of rising star team mate Norris – who is in a routine of taking big strides in stature every time he turns a wheel – but at a team that should be fighting at the sharp end of the midfield as a minimum.
But they also know that he’s spent a year out of racing in any form, will need time to bed in and that his arrival comes at a time of instability with Andreas Seidl recently vacating his post as Team Principal and Andrea Stella earning promotion as his replacement.
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McLaren rate Piastri – that’s why Zak Brown swooped to sign him when he had a sniff that the Australian was available – and thus will give him the space to build up, especially on the racing side. They see him and Norris as their long-term future and know it will take time for him to get up to speed and deliver on his potential.
He was also highly-rated by Alpine, the French team giving him a significant testing programme that let Piastri quickly build up mileage so he could learn the car, the tyres and how things work in an F1 operation.
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That three F1 teams fought for his signature (Williams were interested, too) suggests there’s something about Piastri that makes people in the know think he’s a potential star. Senior folk at Prema, where he won the F3 and F2 titles at the first attempt, saw something special, too.
It is of course one thing to win in junior formulae and quite another to repeat the trick in F1.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, successfully repeated their title success, while the likes of Pastor Maldonado, Pierre Gasly, George Russell and Charles Leclerc have also reached the top step of the podium, the latter on multiple occasions.
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However, other champions – such as Jolyon Palmer, Stoffel Vandoorne, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean and Mick Schumacher – struggled to deliver the same kind of success.
It’s up to Piastri to prove over the next few years that he can deliver on the hype and slot himself into that prestigious first group of drivers.