Inside the F1 contract fight shaping the fates of three Australians

Oscar Piastri.Credit:Joe Armao

Teams contracting drivers to rival teams further down the grid are commonplace in F1. Mercedes driver George Russell cut his teeth in F1 with Williams, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc got his first reps with Alfa Romeo.

But behind the scenes and long before the Alonso/Aston alliance, Webber’s plans for Piastri were quietly crystallizing – and at a time when Ricciardo’s second season at McLaren was heading down an equally miserable path to its premiere. Alonso’s bomb brought them to the surface.

Webber charges as Ricciardo struggles

Ricciardo, in the second year of a three-season contract with McLaren who has the third year as an option – above all, on his side – was going through another difficult campaign by the time the 2022 season passed at Monaco. This weekend in May, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown suggested there were break clauses in Ricciardo’s contract, adding “there are mechanisms in which we commit to each other. , and mechanisms in which we are not”.

Public questioning of Ricciardo’s tenure has heightened tensions, with McLaren responding by reiterating they are keen to help Ricciardo rediscover his mojo. But talk of Ricciardo’s future never died down, and after an eighth-place finish at the Austrian Grand Prix in July, Ricciardo made a rare appearance on social media to quash rumors that his fruitless run would see him leave at the end of the season, none. -referring too subtly to the fact that he – and not McLaren – held the option on his 2023 contract. The timing was no accident.

Daniel Ricardo.

Daniel Ricardo.Credit:Eddie Jim

Days before in Austria, Sky Sports F1 pit lane reporter Ted Kravitz suggested why the mooted loan arrangement between Piastri and Williams had stalled.

“Could the delay be because (Piastri) and his manager Mark Webber are considering potentially replacing Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren,” Kravitz said.

“As each race passes and points and performance fall short of Ricciardo, perhaps McLaren will come with a late offer for Piastri, slash him under Williams’ nose and offer him Ricciardo’s seat for 2023. “

Fast forward to this week, the news of Vettel’s retirement in Budapest and Alonso’s shock move to Aston Martin have opened the door for Alpine for Piastri to race for the team he was integrated into this season. Alpine issued a press release the day after Alonso’s defection announcing Piastri as the race driver for next season – but with no quotes attributed to Piastri. It was the reddest of red flags.

Hours later, Piastri tweeted “I won’t be driving for Alpine next year,” a remarkable dismissal of a racing seat for a rookie driver.

With so few vacant seats available at other teams for next season, it was clear that Webber already had Piastri set for a drive elsewhere, with Alonso’s plans of little consequence.

Later in the week it emerged McLaren had officially told Ricciardo after Hungary that he was no longer their preferred choice for 2023. McLaren-owned teams in IndyCar or Formula E, wanting to extend his F1 career into a 12th season.

While reports from Europe all but confirmed Piastri’s ascension to a seat at McLaren, the team – as well as Piastri and Ricciardo’s camps – were tight-lipped. Put simply, McLaren will have to pay Ricciardo to make way for Piastri, with talks over the details of a financial settlement putting a damper on any official announcement.

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What shall we do now?

Alpine had indicated it would do everything in its power to get Piastri to honor a contract it says is watertight and contains options for 2023 and 2024, asking for the dispute to be settled by the Contract Recognition Board ( CRB) of F1. However, European outlet RacingNews365 reported that the CRB had already validated Piastri’s McLaren contract, allowing him to stand above the deal Alpine believed they had.

What is less clear is what will happen to Ricciardo’s future when Piastri, as now expected, is announced at McLaren ahead of the season resuming in Belgium at the end of August. It is unclear whether Ricciardo completes the 2022 season with the team under such delicate circumstances, while Piastri’s McLaren deal – which does not come into effect until 2023 – prevents him from being an option for the 10 races remaining from this year.

The twists and turns of this story don’t end there either. With Alonso elsewhere and Piastri not starting, Alpine could still open his arms to a return from Ricciardo in a marriage of convenience.

While positives have been few for Ricciardo at McLaren, he won the team’s only race since 2012 when he won the Italian Grand Prix last year. Despite his drop in form, Ricciardo remains one of the most marketable drivers in F1, especially in the United States.

The legacy and the future

If Ricciardo returns to Alpine, next season will be the first since 2013 – Webber’s last campaign in the sport – when Australia has two drivers on the F1 grid. That these two drivers had a connection to the retired Vettel then and now is yet another bizarre subplot.

After two seasons at the wheel of Scuderia Toro Rosso, Ricciardo took over from Webber at Red Bull Racing in 2014 following Webber’s retirement. The older Australian spent five seasons as Vettel’s teammate, with Vettel winning four titles in a row and 34 races to Webber’s seven from 2010 to 2013.

Statistically, the careers of Webber and Ricciardo make for an interesting comparison. Webber started 215 Grands Prix and won nine times, racking up 42 podiums and finishing third in the world championship three times. Ricciardo (eight wins from 223 starts with 32 podium finishes) has built a career on opportunistic wins with machines incapable of any real title tilt.

The events of the past week ensure that when Piastri makes his debut – given how he secured his place on the grid – his rookie season will be viewed like no driver before him.

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