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Why McLaren opted for Oscar Piastri: a look into a memorable junior career

Written by Tomás Paúl, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Clive Mason

21-year old Oscar Piastri has finally been announced as a McLaren driver for 2023. The Aussie is slated to replace the outgoing Daniel Ricciardo, whose departure from the team was confirmed last Wednesday afternoon, after weeks of such rumours.

Piastri is widely tipped by many to be a star of the future, a potential world-champion, and for good reason - his junior career is nothing short of spectacular. Fans often cite Charles Leclerc’s and George Russell’s junior careers as examples of stellar formative years, but Piastri’s junior career is right alongside those of the current Ferrari and Mercedes stars. All signs point towards Piastri being one of the next big names of the sport.

The same cannot be said, however, for Piastri’s fellow countryman Ricciardo. Despite finding success at Red Bull Racing in the form of 29 podiums and seven race wins, and even two podiums for Renault in 2020, his last two years at McLaren have been lacklustre. There have been highs, mainly in the form of a spectacular win at Monza last year, but they have been few and far between the weekends, when he was convincingly outpaced by his younger teammate Lando Norris. Following a disappointing first half of the season, McLaren have decided to terminate Ricciardo’s contract a year earlier than expected. Although, this comes at a high cost for McLaren, who are rumoured to be paying Ricciardo $15m to not race for them next year. All this to bring in a 21-year old rookie with no Formula 1 experience. Why, then, has McLaren taken this risk by investing in Piastri?

Credit: Dan Mullan

Piastri’s journey in racing starts at the point where most drivers start, karting. He boasted of some impressive results in his first year, 2014, finishing second in the Australian National Sprint Kart Championship - Junior Clubman and third in the IAME International - X30 Junior. The following year, he followed up this result by finishing third in the Australian Kart Championship, as well as racing in the WSK Super Master Series and the CIK-FIA European Championship, finishing 80th and 26th respectively. 2016 saw him compete in a multitude of karting championships with Rick Flynn Motorsport, with the highlight being a sixth place in the CIK-FIA World Championship. Results didn’t come as easy to him in 2016 as they had in the two years prior. With 2016 being his final year in karts, could Piastri really rise above the competition after his transition to cars?

Without a doubt. The answer was a resounding “yes”, but this wasn’t immediately obvious. He began by competing in the inaugural season of the Formula 4 UAE Championship with Dragon F4. After 11 races, he had what could be described as a “decent” season. He finished the season sixth, in a field of 15 drivers, with 94 points and two podiums to his name, some way behind Logan Sargeant in second.

2017 was a more successful season for him, as he finished second in the F4 British Championship. Racing for the TRS Arden Junior Team, Piastri ended the 30-race season with six wins, six poles, five fastest laps and 13 podiums to his name - and finished ahead of “rival” Sargeant, who took a comfortable third.

Piastri struggled somewhat in Formula Renault Eurocup in 2018. After 20 races, the Australian had just three podiums and no wins to his name. He settled for eighth in the championship behind notable drivers such as Max Fewtrell, Christian Lundgaard, and - you guessed it - Sargeant. Crucially, however, Piastri dominated his teammate, who finished the season down in 22nd with one point to his name, compared to Piastri’s 110.

In 2019, however, fortune changed for Piastri.

For the first (and only) time in his career, Piastri returned in 2019 to race in the same championship for a second year, competing in the Formula Renault Eurocup once more, this time with R-ace GP. Piastri won the championship with seven wins, five pole positions, six fastest laps, and 11 podiums, in a total of 19 races. Admittedly, the field that year wasn’t the strongest, but winning the Formula Renault Eurocup was a top-shelf achievement. Renault F1 seemed to agree, as they signed him to the Renault Sport Academy that same year.

The next two years would solidify Piastri as one of the most exciting talents to have risen through the ranks in recent years.

Piastri went on to win the FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 championships with Prema Racing in his rookie seasons, in 2020 and 2021 respectively. His Formula 3 campaign went down to the last race at Mugello, with Théo Pourchaire and Sargeant finishing only three and four points adrift of Piastri respectively. Despite the close title battle, it was evident that Piastri was special from his first feature race in Formula 3, which he won. After an early collision, he produced a brilliant overtake round the outside of the Red Bull Ring’s Turn 3 to reclaim the lead. He overcame tyre degradation concerns to claim a victory on his debut by over three seconds.

Credit: Daniel Pockett

There is no word to describe Piastri’s Formula 2 title charge other than “domination”. Claiming six wins, five pole positions, six fastest laps and eleven podiums, Piastri finished the season a staggering 60.5 points ahead of second-place finisher and teammate Robert Shwartzman, and 69.5 points ahead of current Alfa Romeo F1 driver Guanyu Zhou. The first half of the season was only enough to vantage him a five point lead heading into the summer break, but what came after the summer break exuded shades of Sebastian Vettel in 2013. Piastri went on to win every remaining feature race and claim every remaining pole position. This was more than enough to win him the title in his rookie season. Only five other drivers have achieved this: Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg, Charles Leclerc, and George Russell. Furthermore, he was the first driver ever in history to win three consecutive F1 feeder series championships.

Logically, the next step was Formula 1. Many expected Piastri to take one of the two free Alfa Romeo seats, but Alfa Romeo had other plans. Piastri found himself without a drive for 2022, given the rule that Formula 2 champions are not allowed to return to the grid. Either way, Piastri has managed to keep himself busy this year, serving his duties as a reserve driver for Alpine, and even joining McLaren’s pool of reserve drivers. He has completed three private tests with the Alpine A521 this year, and rumour has it that Piastri has consistently been faster than Esteban Ocon in private tests and in the simulator. Alpine’s sporting director Alan Permane has also stated Piastri will participate in an FP1 session “either in Spa or Monza”, although given the recent developments, one questions whether this will still take place.

Credit: Joe Portlock

Alpine’s Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer has hinted multiple times this year, regarding Piastri taking two-time F1 champ Fernando Alonso’s seat as soon possible, so when Alonso announced his shock move to Aston Martin, it was almost a given that Piastri would step up to race for Alpine in 2023, and this was “confirmed” the next day when Alpine stated that “Oscar Piastri is promoted to a race seat alongside Esteban Ocon starting from 2023.” In a bizarre turn of events, however, Piastri now infamously rejected this development, expressing that the statement was “wrong” and “[he had] not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023.”

The Contract Recognition Board (CRB) met this week and ruled that the only valid contract was that between McLaren and Piastri, signed on the 4th of July - one day after Ricciardo finished second to last at the British Grand Prix.

This is, after all, an expensive move for McLaren. It comes at the cost of buying out Ricciardo’s contract for a reported $12m, and whatever salary was settled between McLaren and Piastri. In a billion-dollar results-driven industry, McLaren have chosen to give the boot to former F1 star Ricciardo to invest in a promising rookie. Could McLaren have signed their best rookie since Lewis Hamilton? It’s not outside of the realm of possibility, but only time will be able to tell us the answer to this question.

1 Comment

Sep 03, 2022

Can't help think this could be a huge error by all involved, firstly - Alpine should have had a watertight contract on Oscar... second, their plans or poor management or Fernando's tricky relationship with the management maybe, spooked him into leaving. So now Alpine either take Danny Ric who is undoubtedly great but probably punch drunk from 2 years in a dire situation or they take a rookie, or Mick who I like but might just smash the hell out of the car and budget every 2 weeks. Mclaren now blast a $12m hole in their budget, which undoubtedly they can afford but they then bring in a rookie to a tricky car, a dominant team mate so far.... and…

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