Formula One is one of the world’s most dramatic and high-stakes sports – and we’re not just talking about fast cars.
As current World Champion Lewis Hamilton famously quipped last year, “cash is king” in the world’s most popular motorsports series. F1 has always been a rich man’s sport but in recent years, it’s become even more of one: to succeed as a driver in F1, you not only have to be incredibly skilled, but you also need to have an enormous amount of cash behind you, whether that’s in the form of support from big sponsors, being connected to one of the big team’s junior driving programs or serious family money/connections.
It’s the latter that’s become a flashpoint in recent years, with a number of so-called ‘pay drivers’ currently dominating the grid. Drivers like Nicholas Latifi, Nikita Mazepin and Lance Stroll all have billionaire fathers who’ve invested huge money in their respective teams, virtually guaranteeing them a seat. The ‘pay driver’ label is sometimes a somewhat unfair one – Stroll, for example, won the F3 title in 2016 and has proven to be a rather competent F1 driver in his years in the sport – but it’s a reality that there’s a lot of very talented drivers in junior formulae that aren’t getting a go in F1, who might have otherwise been able to ascend to F1 if not for ‘pay drivers’ on the grid.
Which brings us to Oscar Piastri. The 20-year-old Melbourne native has quickly built a name for himself as one of the most talented young drivers on the planet: last year, he became the F3 World Champion in his debut year in the series – a feat it looks like he’s about to repeat in F2 this year. Last year, we called him “the next Daniel Ricciardo”, but there’s a good chance he could go even further than that, and be the first Australian F1 World Champion since Alan Jones in 1980.
The only issue is that it doesn’t look like Piastri will be given a go in F1 for a long time yet – which highlights a number of major problems with the sport.
Every year in F1, there’s always a flurry of activity and speculation over different drivers’ contracts. Team changes, retirements, new drivers coming into the sport… 2021 has been a particularly interesting year, with a number of big moves, including young gun George Russell jumping ship from Williams to top team Mercedes, and Alexander Albon – who previously spent half a year at Red Bull in 2020 until he was unceremoniously dropped from the team and F1 for 2021 – filling Russell’s spot.
Question marks still remain regarding Alfa Romeo. Kimi Räikkönen, who’s retiring at the end of this year, is being replaced by outgoing Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, but the other seat at the team – currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi – is still yet to be finalised.
Many were hoping that Piastri would take Giovinazzi’s place, but Alfa team principal Fred Vasseur has all but confirmed Piastri is out of contention, downplaying his chances and suggesting the Aussie will eventually get his chance with Alpine (formerly known as Renault) in 2022, Nine’s Wide World of Sports reports. Instead, it seems almost certain that instead another F2 driver, China’s Guanyu Zhou, will be given the seat… Despite the fact that Piastri is clearly and quantifiably a better driver.
The first issue is this: the way F2 works is that as soon as you win the title (which Piastri is on track to do), you’re no longer allowed to compete in the series. That’s fine if you can get a seat in F1 after that, but if you don’t, you’re almost punished for your success. It seems perverse that Piastri will win the F2 World Championship and then not only not get an F1 seat for 2022 but also have to leave F2. While the rule makes sense – F2 is meant to be a junior, feeder series, so you don’t want older drivers just sticking around and kerbstomping younger hopefuls (nor do you want winning the F2 title meaning a guaranteed go in F1 – it seems unfair for Piastri.
The broader issue is that there’s an incredibly small number of spots open to drivers in F1. There are only 10 teams racing in F1 currently, and each team is only allowed 2 drivers, so there’s only 20 spots total. There’s just no room for Piastri. This isn’t actually a hard-and-fast rule: there’s been as many as 13 teams/26 drivers racing in F1 in previous years, so if more teams entered the sport, this could change. That said, because only the top 10 teams get a share of the prize money – and it’s so unbelievably expensive to operate an F1 team – this is incredibly unlikely to change.
The broader issue is the one we touched on earlier: that it’s money, not talent, that largely determines one’s hopes in F1. Both Piastri and Zhou are members of the Alpine Academy (the F1 team’s junior driver program) but Zhou is additionally backed by a huge amount of Chinese sponsorship money. If he gets that Alfa seat, he’ll be the very first Chinese F1 driver ever, and F1 is naturally very keen to build more of a following in China…
To be clear, Zhou is not a bad driver by any means – he’s currently 2nd in the F2 standings behind Piastri – but it doesn’t sit well with many fans and current drivers that once again, money is placed ahead of talent in F1.
Mark Webber, former Australian F1 driver and Piastri’s mentor, has said that “it’s a bit of a headache because he can’t race [in F2], because he’s got more superlicence points than he needs… we still have to filter out some of the enthusiasm and passion for some of the [older] drivers that are here, and get that fresher blood in,” PlanetF1 reports. Current Aussie F1 champ Daniel Ricciardo is also a fan of Piastri’s, and reportedly is keen to see him in F1 as well.
It’s not just fellow Aussies who back Piastri. Monaco’s Charles Leclerc, who currently drives for Ferrari in F1 and like Piastri is set to do, won the F2 World Championship in his only year in the sport, has strongly endorsed Piastri as well.
“He is a very, very talented driver… I obviously look at all the F2 races and he’s incredibly consistent, always there when he needs to be,” he shared with The Race.
“It is impressive and he definitely has the merit to be in F1. I really hope for him [to get a seat] – he should be in F1. So, I really hope he will be very soon.”
Alfa still haven’t finalised that second seat, so Piastri might still be in with a chance yet. What’s far more likely, however, is that Piastri will miss out this year and instead head to Alpine in 2023. Current Alpine driver and two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso’s has only signed a one-year extension to his contract for 2022 – which means there’s a very realistic chance that Alonso will retire at the end of next year and Piastri will get his spot.
Alternatively, Piastri might be being groomed for a spot at an even better team… But seeing as how the vast majority of teams have their own driver’s programs – and no shortage of skilled drivers champing at the bit for a go in F1 – we’ll just have to wait and see.
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