The 2023 Formula 1 World Championship has only just started and there’s already one big question on the lips of every fan: how well will Oscar Piastri do this year, especially compared to Daniel Ricciardo?
Few drivers have entered Formula 1 under so much anticipation (and controversy) as Oscar Piastri. The 21-year-old Australian, who is making his F1 debut this season with McLaren and replacing fellow Aussie Daniel Ricciardo at the iconic British team, is widely vaunted as a future World Champion.
The prevailing feeling, however, is that he better be. Ricciardo’s failure to launch at McLaren has been one of the biggest head-scratchers in recent Formula 1 memory – yet his departure from the team has been keenly felt by F1 fans. Expectations are understandably high for Piastri, who faces pressure not only to better Ricciardo but to better his teammate, the talented Lando Norris.
The young Melburnian has already said that he thinks he’ll do a better job at McLaren than Danny Ric did – a big call, but not an unjustifiable one. Of course, it’s early days yet as well.
But in order to try and answer the question that everyone’s already asking this early into the season, here are the three signs we all need to pay attention to, to see if Piastri really is better than Ricciardo, as he and many supporters have claimed.
Piastri’s gap to Norris
The single biggest indicator of how good Piastri is will be what his gap to Norris in qualifying will be. There’s a reason this is the figure most fans and commentators quote to compare how good drivers are compared to their teammates as well as the rest of the grid: on a flying lap, without the burden of explicit competition, in the same car, how much better will Piastri be than Norris?
In the 2022 season, Ricciardo was consistently off Norris’ pace, sometimes by literal seconds (a lifetime in F1), like at the British Grand Prix. Ricciardo also only out-qualified Norris twice during the 2022 season.
If Piastri can do a better job of narrowing the gap to Norris in qualifying than Ricciardo did, then it’ll be clear that he might be better than Ricciardo. We doubt Piastri will consistently out-qualify Norris, but if he can even the balance, that’ll be a good sign.
Even if he can’t consistently out-qualify Norris, as long as there’s not a consistently big gap between the two drivers’ times, that could also be considered a victory.
How many crashes Piastri has
Something else that will give us an indication of how good of a driver Piastri is, is how many accidents or crashes he may or may not get into during his rookie season.
Rookies and rubbish drivers tend to crash a lot – that’s sort of the nature of the beast. Just think about how many crashes Yuki Tsunoda, Nicholas Latifi, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin (or should that be Mazespin?) got into over the last three years.
Sometimes crashes are unavoidable, especially if other drivers are at fault, but if Piastri can keep his nose clean – particularly in an underperforming car that’s forced to scrap it out in the midfield – we’ll get a sense of how competent he is as a driver. Piastri doesn’t have a reputation for binning his car, but we’ll see how he goes in F1.
Not that Ricciardo has a reputation for crashing a lot either, because he doesn’t. He had a few shockers during his two years at McLaren, such as crashing out on the first lap of the 2022 São Paulo Grand Prix or crashing during FP2 in Monaco, but he’s mostly been a fairly clean driver during his career.
Norris also has a fairly clean record where crashes are considered, with his most dramatic coming during qualifying at the ridiculously wet 2021 Belgian Grand Prix. He also had a bingle at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix.
Piastri’s performance versus the other F1 rookies
Another key indicator of how good Piastri is will be how he compares to the other two F1 rookies on the grid this year: AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries and Williams’ Logan Sargeant.
To be fair, calling de Vries a rookie is sort of misleading. This might only be de Vries’ first full-time year in F1, but the 28-year-old Dutchman is also a Formula E and Formula 2 World Champion, and has had a solid three years of F1 reserve driver experience under his belt, including his impressive one-race appearance for Williams at the 2022 Italian Grand Prix where he scored points on debut.
Sargeant is perhaps a better yardstick for Piastri. The 22-year-old American’s best results have been 4th in the F2 championship last year and 3rd in the Formula 3 championship in 2020. Sargeant’s not a bad driver by any means – he came 12th in Bahrain and could have very easily scored points on debut – but as a former F2 champion, Piastri is theoretically a better driver than him.
Another driver who’s a good point of comparison for Piastri is Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu, who is coming into only his second season in F1. Zhou finished 3rd in the same F2 season that Piastri won, and many felt that at the time, Piastri was far more deserving of the seat at Alfa Romeo than Zhou was.
If Piastri can outperform Zhou, Sargeant and de Vries this season (especially de Vries), it’ll show that the hype surrounding him is deserved. However, if Sargeant gets the better of him this season, it would be a seriously bad look.
Of course, we don’t want to write off Piastri just yet… Nor do we want to be too effusive in calling him the best thing since sliced bread. We’re not even two races into his maiden F1 season, and most maiden F1 seasons tend to be pretty rough.
McLaren’s car concept this year also seems particularly far from the mark, meaning that both Norris and Piastri will struggle to score points with it this season. If he’s got a dog of a car, you can’t expect Piastri to dazzle.
(Indeed, Piastri was forced to retire from the season-opening 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix after only 13 laps thanks to an electrical failure, and Norris was forced to pit a laughable six times thanks to hydraulic issues, making him finish last.)
That said, one of Norris’ most impressive attributes has been how he’s been able to eke every last drop of performance out of his cars, even when McLaren’s been uncompetitive. It’s the sign of a good driver: just think about the heroics Fernando Alonso was able to pull off with the 2022 Alpine or Sergio Pérez’s legendary 20th to 1st drive at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix in a Racing Point, which netted him a seat at Red Bull.
All we know is that we’ll be keeping a very close eye on Piastri this weekend… Hopefully, he has more luck in Saudi Arabia than he did in Bahrain.