The Oscar Piastri saga that kept Formula 1 in the headlines over the summer break feels like a long time ago doesn’t it? After Alpine thought their young star was going to step in for Fernando Alonso, Piastri had been in talks with McLaren.
A hearing from the FIA‘s Contract Recognition Board revealed Piastri signed a contract on July 4 to join McLaren at the start of 2023.
Alpine were disappointed but came out as the big losers as they had lost Alonso to Aston Martin and Piastri to McLaren in one quick sweep.
Since then, the team’s director of legal affairs Benedicte Mercer had her contract terminated on November 8, three months after the fiasco.
As for Piastri, Alpine have not ran the 2021 Formula 2 champion in their car as plans to give him Piastri FP1 outings were scrapped.
They made an agreement with McLaren that means Piastri will be released to the Woking-based team after this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, so he can take part in the post-season test.
Pierre Gasly can drive for Alpine as part of the deal and Nyck de Vries is expected to jump into the AlphaTauri.
“I can confirm that in the end we reached a settlement agreement with all parties involved, which enabled us to put Oscar in an old car last week in Paul Ricard and do a private test,” said McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl in Sao Paulo.
“[It] will enable us to officially start working with Oscar on Monday after the last race in Abu Dhabi, which enables us then as well to put him in the current car at the Young Driver Test, which is something we’re very much looking forward to – it’s great for us and for Oscar.”
That’s all well and good but looking ahead to the 2023 F1 season, Piastri is putting himself under big pressure, perhaps unnecessarily.
A strange McLaren
Piastri is taking a risk by joining a team which has had mixed fortunes with young drivers – Sergio Perez, Stoffel Vandoorne and Lando Norris are the last three young, or less experienced, names to step into a McLaren seat.
The big problem could be the car, not whether it’s quick or not, but the handling of it.
There have been two completely different sets of technical regulations in 2021 and 2022, both times the McLaren has been described as “strange”.
Daniel Ricciardo‘s downfall, which has left him without a seat for next year, has been a major reason for his largely disappointing two seasons at McLaren.
“I knew straight away it was a different beast,” Ricciardo told The-Race about the 2021 McLaren.
“I’d be lying if I said the Renault wasn’t a different beast to the Red Bull, so they are all different. But there’s certainly some things where this car is slightly more peculiar. That’s the puzzle that I’m still trying to solve.
“But every car will respond and react differently, and this one’s got a couple of other things, I guess.”
The entry of slow speed corners is where Ricciardo simply doesn’t have the same confidence or feel as Norris, who has completely outshone him over the last two seasons.
McLaren‘s executive director of racing Andrea Stella admits the philosophy of the car the team make requires a unique driving style.
“What we kept is some characteristics of our car that make it very special to drive, which we see with the experience Daniel is going through because he came from the opposite end in terms of how you would like to drive a Formula 1 car,” said Stella.
“Our car requires some special adaptation, while we work to improve this aspect. It’s no secret that our car is good in high-speed corners and may not be the best car when you have to roll speed in mid-corner.
“We are trying to adjust some of the characteristics to make it a little bit more manageable to drive. At the same time, the important thing to deliver is aerodynamic efficiency, even if we couldn’t necessarily improve in terms of balance and [driver] exploitation of the car.”
Why does this affect Piastri? One driver’s struggles doesn’t mean another driver will, but Carlos Sainz, who drove for McLaren in 2019 and 2020, also revealed to Ricciardo that there is something about the dynamic of McLaren‘s last five cars.
“I think, for whatever reason, naturally at the moment the car isn’t quite coming to me,” said Ricciardo after the 2022 Monaco GP.
“Bumped into Carlos not too long ago. He was like, ‘What do you think, strange huh?’ And I was like, ‘Thanks for telling me!’
“I feel there is a bit of a characteristic with this car that, let’s say, is a bit strange. Generally, you’ve got a window to work in and you can play inside that area and be fairly okay.”
Norris backs up Ricciardo and Sainz comments
Norris was expected to be the driver on the backfoot when Ricciardo joined the team at the start of 2021.
Instead, it’s been the other way around and the Briton’s stock has risen significantly after he showed excellent form in 2021 which included four podiums and a maiden pole position at the Russian GP.
Despite often having a comfortable margin over Ricciardo over the last two seasons, Even Norris admits he has been forced to adjust to the 2022 car.
“I don’t think you can probably in any way say the car is made around me,” Norris told Autosport in an interview ahead of the summer break in July.
“From what I want from the car, it’s like the opposite of what it’s giving me at the minute! And yeah, I would say the car I have now is completely not what I want for my driving style, and very unsuited for me.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that’s what it is, and you have to adapt to it. That’s why I feel like I’ve done a reasonable job this year, adapting to something that is not quite what I want or like.
“That’s one of the improvements I’ve made over the last few years.”
From the comments of Norris, Ricciardo and Sainz, there is something the technical team, led by James Key, are doing which makes the McLaren difficult to drive and has a narrow operating window.
Of course, you can argue the very best drivers should be able to adapt, but you can’t forget how good Ricciardo was before 2021.
He was seen as world champion material and a couple years later his F1 career could be over.
Danger looms for Piastri
Without doubt Piastri is an outstanding talent, having won the Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3 and Formula 2 titles in consecutive years in his rookie seasons.
It could be that all goes well and Piastri is a match, or even, has the better of Norris which would certainly raise the eyebrows of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
But, simply being at McLaren rather than a team towards the back of the grid will put more attention on the 21-year-old.
The best sportspeople must deliver under pressure in any case, however a season or two with a team that’s smaller than McLaren surely would have done Piastri a lot of good. After all, he could have gone to Williams but elected not to which you have to admire.
Max Verstappen spent over a year with AlphaTauri, Fernando Alonso a season at Minardi, Sebastian Vettel one season at Toro Rosso, Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc a campaign the same at Sauber.
The only exception is Lewis Hamilton. All of the other greats and very best drivers from this century had at least 12 months with a small team.
If Piastri struggles, he could put his F1 career in major trouble and it will also be a big psychological blow – just look at Ricciardo who’s got more than a decade of experience in the pinnacle of motorsport.
It may be that poor performance from Piastri may not be entirely down to him, but the peculiarities that have featured in recent McLaren cars.
Piastri is being thrown into the deep end and it’s a case of will he sink or swim?