Three weeks ago today the Ganassi IndyCar team issued a press release announcing their driver Alex Palou would remain with them in 2023.
Alongside fulsome praise from team owner Chip Ganassi were a series of incongruously bland comments attributed to the driver. Astonishingly, within a few hours, Palou had not only denied making them but insisted he would not drive for Ganassi in 2023.
So when Alpine issued a press release on Tuesday announcing Oscar Piastri would drive for them in 2023, it didn’t pass without notice that it included no comments whatsoever from the driver. This would have been noteworthy in any case, for what announcement of a driver being awarded their F1 debut is complete without an obligatory line about it being a “dream come true”?
Between the reigning IndyCar champion and the reigning Formula 2 champion, history appeared to be repeating. Sure enough, mere hours after Alpine’s announcement, Piastri issued a denial.
His response was utterly unambiguous. He asserted Alpine’s press release was “wrong” and issued “without my agreement.” In case anyone was still in any doubt he emphasised that “I have not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023” and “I will not be driving for Alpine next year.” No wriggle room there.
There is a clear parallel with what’s going on in IndyCar. It subsequently emerged Palou had taken up an offer to join McLaren, and the dispute appears to be heading for the courts.
But even without that similarity Piastri’s story is extraordinary. Under what circumstances does a new driver, handed the rare opportunity to take one of the 20 seats available in F1 (only one of which went to a rookie this year) turn it down?
Piastri became a member of Alpine’s junior driver programme in 2020 (when the team was still known as Renault). They couldn’t have asked him to have done any better than he did by winning FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 titles the first time of asking. But they had nowhere to place him in F1 this year.
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Did it rankle with Piastri that, despite winning the F2 title at his first attempt, he was passed over for promotion to F1 in favour of a driver who took three years to finish third in the same championship? Perhaps, but to his credit Piastri spoke up in support of his fellow Alpine junior driver Zhou Guanyu following the social media backlash over his deal to join Alfa Romeo.
But while Alpine have ensured Piastri continues to get F1 seat time, a year’s absence from real competition does no driver any good. Piastri will have been desperate to ensure he doesn’t miss the boat and thereby join the list of F2 (previously GP2) champions still waiting for their F1 breaks: Nyck de Vries, Fabio Leimer, Davide Valsecchi…
Until Fernando Alonso’s announcement yesterday, Piastri had little reason to expect an Alpine seat would open up for him next year. The definitive nature of his statement invites the interpretation he is locked in elsewhere. For their part, Alpine say they have nothing further to add to their previous announcement.
If Piastri therefore believes he is committed elsewhere, where might that be? As RaceFans reported yesterday, Alonso’s decision to leave Alpine boosted Piastri’s chances of appearing on the grid, but did not necessarily guarantee he’d end up in the seat vacated by the two-times champion. It was already known Alpine were looking to place him elsewhere.
A quick survey of the confirmed F1 driver line-up for 2023 so far indicates there are few open spaces left, and none at any of the other four teams in the top half of the constructors championship. Has Piastri therefore chosen a less competitive option, or accepted another year on the sidelines in order to secure a guaranteed 2024 seat at a stronger team?
If the former, some of the possibilities were already being explored by Alpine before Alonso dropped his bombshell. Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi confirmed during the French Grand Prix weekend the team was willing to loan Piastri to a rival team on the understanding he would return in the future. Williams was one mooted destination, and its CEO Jost Capito indicated he was open to such an arrangement.
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If the latter, one team is in obvious need of a driver for 2024: McLaren. Daniel Ricciardo’s second season at the team is going no better than his first.
A contract extension for Ricciardo look like a non-starter. Rumours persist the team may prise him out of his seat a year early, despite Ricciardo’s firm dismissal of such speculation last month. If a 2023 debut was on the table, even as a remote possibility, McLaren’s appeal to Piastri would have been even stronger.
This would, of course, mean that the same team is common denominator in the extraordinary developments in both the IndyCar and Formula 1 driver markets. That stretches credulity, particularly as McLaren are hardly short of driving talent, with several other promising IndyCar talents on their books who would love a shot at F1.
The surprising developments ultimately triggered by Alonso’s latest surprising career move have left some unanswered questions. But the exchange of conflicting statements from Alpine and Piastri tells us one thing: While Alpine copped a lot of flak for failing to arrange Piastri’s F1 debut this year, if it doesn’t happen next year it won’t be because they didn’t offer him a seat.