McLaren pinning F1 hopes on Oscar Piastri

Oscar Piastri will make McLaren one of the youngest teams on the F1 grid © Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

This is not McLaren’s year. When the 2022 Formula 1 season comes to an end this weekend in Abu Dhabi, the team will have scored a fraction of the points of its top three championship rivals.

But whether 2023 will be better depends on a radical plan: McLaren bought out the contract of eight-time Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo a year earlier and replaced him with another Australian: 21-year-old Oscar Piastri.

With Lando Norris as a team-mate, it will mean McLaren field one of the youngest teams on the F1 grid, with an average age of just 22.

“We are extremely pleased to have an experienced yet young team moving forward,” said Zak Brown, managing director of McLaren Racing. “We believe Oscar has the raw talent and dedication to be a future world champion.”

On paper, Piastri certainly looks like a generational talent. He came through the junior categories, winning the F3 and F2 feeder championships, each time in his debut season. Normally, the best pilots need two seasons at each level: one to learn and a second to win.

While that surprised Piastri, it also appears to have caught up with his longtime backers, French team Alpine, who didn’t have an F1 ready for him for 2022 as Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were under contract. So Piastri spent this season in a reserve role, which meant no racing, but valuable testing experience and behind-the-scenes simulator work.

Meanwhile, as Ricciardo’s form plunged alarmingly, Brown and his F1 team principal Andreas Seidl realized Piastri had an exit clause in his Alpine deal and pounced. When Alonso stunned Alpine in August by announcing he had signed with Aston Martin for 2023, Alpine initially announced Piastri as his replacement – ​​only to have Piastri push him away on social media and reveal he had already signed with McLaren.

F1’s contract recognition committee was called in to resolve the dispute and ruled in favor of McLaren, leaving Alpine empty-handed.

Piastri acknowledges that it’s a lot of effort, money and commitment for a top brand, like McLaren, to show a rookie.

“Motorsport is an incredibly hard-working, serious business,” he says. “It was a massive show of trust and faith that made me appreciate their commitment to me, knowing all that needed to go on to make this possible.” McLaren, he says, “have shown time and time again that they are capable of nurturing young talent” – previous success stories include Mika Hakkinen, Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Piastri Norris.

Commitment is not only obvious on the side of McLaren, however. Piastri has been dedicated to motorsport for years. After proving as a child that he could compete with the best European talents in karting, he chose to come to the UK, alone, at the age of 14.

“My dad said, ‘I’m glad you’re still doing this,'” he recalled. “’But you’re going to have to be here full time and you’ll be here on your own. I’m going home to mom and your three sisters. So I had to make a pretty big decision about whether I wanted to stay in Europe or go back home. It worked well.

Piastri attended Haileybury, a boarding school in Hertfordshire, where he obtained the baccalaureate – usually required for university entrance – in maths, physics and computer science, despite an attendance record of 37% in his final year, due to international racing commitments.

“It definitely made me mature a lot faster than I otherwise would,” he says. “When you go to the other side of the world at 14, you have to grow up quite quickly and learn to do things on your own.”

Piastri comes across as serious and thoughtful – much less of a prankster than the driver he replaces. His record in the junior categories demonstrates an ability to work around problems to unlock the speed that brings results, which is what F1 is all about. Red Bull, this year’s top team, tested Piastri in their simulator before he was picked up by Alpine but failed to spot his talent, which team principal Christian Horner said. publicly stated that he was sorry.

Next season Piastri will face Norris, one of the fastest drivers of the new generation of drivers, who will enter his fifth F1 season when he was just 23 years old. Although Piastri has completed just over 5,000 kilometers of testing in an F1 car, he will be a bit rusty after a season on the substitutes’ bench. But history shows that this is surmountable: it was a forced career change taken by several world champions, including Hakkinen and Alonso.

“I feel reasonably well prepared,” says Piastri. “I had this year to get into the mindset of F1. In the first half of the year, I attended all the races, I took part in all the meetings. I adopted the lifestyle of an F1 driver, just without driving.”

Having proven himself in the junior categories, he feels “ready now for F1”.

“Obviously we have a bit of work to do to get McLaren back to where we want to be,” he added. “But I’m excited to be part of this challenge.”

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