The Formula 1 world has been rocked in recent weeks by the drama surrounding 21-year-old Australian driver Oscar Piastri, with two of the sport’s biggest names – McLaren and Alpine – fighting over the young star, despite the fact he’s not even in F1 yet… But it seems both teams have stuffed up big time, and they’re both stuffing up Piastri’s future.
For those out of the loop or not complete F1 tragics like me, here’s the situation. Piastri, a Melbourne boy who was part of the Alpine (formerly Renault) Driver Academy, is one of the most talented young drivers in world motorsport and is widely considered future World Champion material.
The 21-year-old has won 3 titles in 3 years – the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup, the 2020 Formula 3 championship and the 2021 Formula 2 championship (the latter of which he both won in his rookie years in each category, a huge achievement) – but in what felt like a huge miscarriage of justice, found himself without a seat in F1 for 2022.
When you win F2, you’re no longer allowed to compete in the series, so Piastri instead took a reserve driver role at Alpine this year, with the understanding that he’d be racing in F1 in 2023 – either with Alpine or as a loan to back-marker team Williams. Instead, Piastri’s future looks increasingly uncertain.
On the 28th of July, Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel took everyone by surprise by announcing his retirement at the end of the 2022 season. Then, just days later, Fernando Alonso announced he was leaving Alpine to take Seb’s spot at Aston Martin – an even more surprising move.
When Alonso announced his departure, Piastri’s move to Alpine seemed like a foregone conclusion. With Alonso gone, it would seem natural that Alpine would give him the spot – and indeed, that’s what the team announced publically. Then, hours later, Oscar responded, saying that Alpine hadn’t consulted him first and that he wouldn’t be racing with them next year, in a now infamous Tweet.
I understand that, without my agreement, Alpine F1 have put out a press release late this afternoon that I am driving for them next year. This is wrong and I have not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023. I will not be driving for Alpine next year.— Oscar Piastri (@OscarPiastri) August 2, 2022
Then it emerged that Piastri and his manager, former F1 driver and fellow Aussie Mark Webber, had been in talks with McLaren, who want Piastri to take Daniel Ricciardo’s seat at the team. As you can see, there’s a lot of drama here… We bet Netflix are licking their lips – Drive To Survive Season 5 will be spicy.
Now that the dust has settled a bit, it looks like this is what’s happened. Alpine was assuming that Alonso was going to sign another contract with them for 2023, with current Alpine driver Esteban Ocon having already signed until 2024. Alonso’s been in cracking form this year, so Alpine wanted to keep him around.
Instead, it’s emerged that Alonso and his manager, former Renault team boss Flavio Briatore, were dragging things out, giving Alpine the impression they were going to resign with them… Only to jump on the Aston Martin deal and leave Alpine with their pants down.
There could be an element of Briatore exacting revenge on his former team here, or Alonso and Webber colluding (the pair are quite close). Webber is also very close with McLaren’s team boss, Andreas Seidl.
At the same time, Alpine hadn’t committed to Piastri, leaving him in the lurch without a concrete deal… Then, August 1st passed, which left Piastri as a free agent without a deal, meaning he was entirely within his rights to approach McLaren.
Alpine tried to force Piastri’s hand by making a public announcement that he’d be racing for them next year, a gamble that clearly didn’t pay off.
Now we’re in a sticky situation where both teams feel as if they’ve got a valid contract with Piastri, with the situation being taken to the FIA’s Driver Contract Recognition Board (CRB) – who has said both contracts are valid. Alpine has threatened to file a civil lawsuit to recoup the millions of dollars it’s spent training Piastri, and that might be where things are headed.
The problem is that regardless of whoever Piastri ends up racing for next year, he’s being set up for failure – just like McLaren set Ricciardo up for failure.
If Alpine win out and force Piastri to race for them in 2023, he’s unlikely to produce the results they might have expected from him. Piastri doesn’t have a petulant temperament by any means, but history’s shown us that when you force a driver to race for you, they don’t tend to race at their best. In short? Alpine has screwed the pooch big time.
Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer has been exceptionally dramatic about the whole situation, scathingly telling Spanish publication El Confidencial “I expected more loyalty from Oscar than he is showing.”
“There should be some loyalty to the fact that we have invested literally millions and millions of euros to prepare him. So I don’t understand it either, you should ask him.”Otmar Szafnauer
You can understand Szafnauer’s frustration to an extent… But it’s a bit rich. Loyalty cuts two ways and it seems as if Alpine hasn’t done right by Piastri, and now they’ve got sour grapes. ABC Sports‘ Michael Doyle’s analysis has adroitly summed up the situation:
“On face value, Szafnauer is portraying a man angered by the disrespect of an ungrateful youngster who has not yet raced in F1. But look a little closer and it comes across as a public relations stunt to hide Alpine’s colossal mismanagement of one of the sport’s hottest prospects.”
“Szafnauer admitted he was shocked by Alonso’s defection… That means Alpine’s perfect scenario was having Alonso and Ocon as drivers for next season, leaving Piastri to spend at least another year as a reserve driver. No riches, no fame and no racing.”
“Piastri, knowing his value, rightfully looked elsewhere… It appears Piastri has found a team that sees his value.”Michael Doyle
Former F1 driver Ralf Schumacher (brother of Michael) has also weighed into the situation, telling Germany’s Sky F1 that “Piastri has done everything right”.
“Now we can only hope that the sore loser – in this case Alpine – doesn’t put obstacles in the boy’s path. Piastri was with them, they had everything in hand, all they had to do was give him a contract… Oscar did nothing wrong.”
“I like Otmar, but he will be disappointed in his own performance, that he didn’t see it coming with Alonso and that he doesn’t have a plan B. That’s the embarrassing thing about the whole saga.”Ralf Schumacher
“[Piastri] won Formula 3 in his first year, and Formula 2 as well. What should he be waiting for? I would have done the same if I had been offered a job… When you have such a jewel, it’s criminal to let him go. If you’re then unable to get the contracts right yourself, you can’t blame the young man.”
That said, if Piastri heads to McLaren, he probably won’t do much better. McLaren is already a team that’s suffering money problems and if they’re forced to not only pay court costs to secure Piastri but pay out Ricciardo – who’s asking US$21 million to get out of his contract – they’ll be seriously feeling the pinch.
F1 is an expensive sport and even with the cost cap theoretically keeping things under control, you need every dollar you can rustle together to succeed.
Ricciardo has made his position crystal clear: he wants to race with McLaren in 2023. $21 million is an absurd amount of money but it shouldn’t distract from the fact that McLaren has done him dirty with this underhanded Piastri deal, as well as just in general.
It’s just so dumb. If McLaren can’t build a race-winning car because they’re short on funds – or for whatever reason – then it doesn’t matter who’s driving it. It also speaks to a more fundamental, systemic issue with McLaren: the team keeps using drivers and other external factors as excuses to mask the fact they don’t have their self together.
McLaren went from being one of the sport’s most successful teams, particularly under Ron Dennis, to a veritable back-marker, after the triple blow of 2007’s Spygate, the 2008 global financial crisis and the loss of Dennis. They’ve been struggling ever since.
They blamed their Honda engines for their poor performance from 2015 to 2017 – only to swap to Renault engines and show it wasn’t just the engines that were stopping them from getting on the podium. Then they ditched Alonso and Jenson Button – both former World Champions – when they apparently failed to deliver.
McLaren is in a far better place now than they were a decade ago but they’re still up to their old tricks, throwing Ricciardo under the bus to hide the fact there are bigger issues in the team.
Ricciardo needs to own his own failures but to a significant extent, his failure to launch at McLaren isn’t his fault. Both the 2021 and 2022 cars have been completely at odds with Ricciardo’s driving style and McLaren hasn’t done enough to improve their cars, or at the very least, meet Danny Ric halfway.
For all the criticism levelled Ricciardo’s way, it must be remembered that he’s done what no other driver has been able to do for Mclaren for over a decade – win a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and on his own merit, too. Yes, his performance otherwise has been pretty average and inconsistent, but many fans and commentators have forgotten that.
It also begs the question: if Lando Norris, the unspoken figure in all this drama, can’t win a race with a car that’s been totally designed around him and with a team that’s also entirely in his corner – yet his teammate, who doesn’t have that privilege, can – how good is he really?
Norris, who signed a new deal with McLaren until the end of 2025 earlier this year, is undoubtedly a good driver but both the media (particularly the British media) and his team have overhyped him ridiculously. Don’t forget, Norris has never won a race in F1.
Yet it’s Danny Ric who’s facing the chopping block. Is it really because he’s over the hill, or is it because he’s too expensive? Is it because he’s not British, and Lando is? Or is it because McLaren doesn’t have its act together and he’s a convenient scapegoat?
Maybe Piastri will defy the odds and succeed at McLaren where his countryman didn’t. We’re not optimistic about that though, especially when you compare Alpine’s performance this season with McLaren’s. Alpine is a team that’s on the up, while McLaren seems to be wallowing.
At the end of the day, this Piastri drama seems to be a case of Gallic arrogance and British foolhardiness playing chicken with the future of a young Australian (ignoring the fact that both Otmar and McLaren CEO Zak Brown are American – just work with me on this one).
We just hope all this drama doesn’t ruin Piastri’s F1 prospects before he’s even had the chance to compete in the sport.