Last July, Oscar Piastri got thrust into the Formula 1 limelight. And if you’d have asked him 12 months ago why that would be, he probably thought he’d be getting a chance to race as part of his preparations for a future Alpine seat.
But no, he was in the middle of a tug-of-war between Alpine and McLaren over his services for 2023, although in reality only one side actually had a hand on the rope.
Alpine was understandably unhappy to be losing a young talent it had invested in, but it had also left the door wide open and not provided a clear pathway to F1 for the hottest property emerging from the junior categories after three straight championship successes that peaked with winning the Formula 2 crown as a rookie in 2021.
Piastri had has character unfairly called into question and had to stay silent until it had all played out a month later in front of the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board.
Now, he sits talking to RACER in a McLaren hoodie looking very relaxed and comfortable at his new home, as he prepares for that long-awaited debut that he admits he was worried might never come.
“It’s been obviously very, very well documented about everything that happened last year,” Piastri says. “So I’m not going to get into too many details, but I’m glad it’s behind us.
“I think being able to start with McLaren at the end of last year was very positive for me, being able to get that early experience with the team. And coming back after Christmas it feels much more familiar. So that side of things has been good.
“I think it was more the not knowing if I’d get a chance in F1 – that was the hardest part. I’m very grateful to McLaren for giving me that opportunity to achieve what’s been a childhood dream of mine.”
Despite not racing last year, Piastri ended up as one of 2022’s biggest storylines. It spoke to how highly McLaren rates him, but could also be seen as adding undue pressure on a driver who has yet to make his debut. That’s not how the Australian sees it though, as he believes his run of titles created enough hype that he needed to try and live up to prior to any contract wrangling.
“I don’t think there’s any added pressure from that,” he says. “I think coming in with the junior record that I’ve had, that naturally brings an element of expectation with it. Also, going up against Lando (Norris) – he’s going to be a strong teammate to have, and a good reference as well. We’re also similar in ages, if that makes any difference.
“So there’s a couple of avenues where pressure could be a factor anyway. And I think with time, the goings-on of last year have gone away. So I don’t feel any extra pressure from that. For me, there’s always an element of pressure, no matter what you do.
“There was an element of pressure after the the two junior championships I won before F2, as well. Obviously, this is a bit of a different league, but it’s still a similar thing. And I’ve got a lot of processes in place to try and deal with that, as I’m sure everyone on the grid does.”
While Piastri concedes there will be some rustiness when he makes his first race start in Bahrain in less than three weeks’ time after having not had to deal with one since 2021, it’s that thrill of being on the grid and watching the lights go out that he’s so desperate to experience again after sitting out last year in a reserve role.
“I think the first thing I’m excited about is just going racing again,” he says. “I’ve been missing it for the last 18 months – well not quite 18, but December 2021 was my last race. So it’s been been a while. That’s the first thing I’m looking forward to.
“The second thing is being able to say that my job is an F1 driver. That’s a pretty cool feeling. And just being able to achieve what was originally a dream that turned into a goal and is now a reality. That’s a pretty cool feeling to have. So I think those are the things I’m most excited about. It’s going racing, having some fun out there and trying to do the best second.”
Piastri’s promotion feels a long time coming, but it coincides with his former Prema teammate Logan Sargeant making the step up as a Williams driver; the pair last competing in the same championship when they went toe-to-toe for the 2020 Formula 3 title.
Piastri won on that occasion in a dramatic final round, but the pair have enjoyed remained in touch despite Piastri stepping up to F2 a year earlier, and it’s comforting for the Melburnian to have a familiar face starting their F1 journey at the same time.
“I’ve still got a good relationship with Logan, and we were obviously teammates in F3 like you mentioned, but we actually live quite close to each other now in the UK,” Piastri says. “We go to the same gym every now and again. So I still see his face away from a racetrack a bit now.
“But we got on really well as teammates, and to be entering the pinnacle of the sport at the same time is a very cool feeling. I know how quick he is (after) being his teammate, and he’s also not had the easiest run into F1 as well.
“So I think it’s pretty cool for him, and to be able to share that with him is a cool feeling. I’m happy for him. And I’m sure we’ll try and do our best to bring it for the rookies.”
If Piastri feels last year was not the easiest run, then it will all be worth it in just over a week’s time when he gets to roll out of the garage to begin pre-season testing. While he’s at ease and positive during our chat, there’s a different trait that has marked him out to new team principal Andrea Stella.
“There’s a characteristic we like a lot – a man of few words, but the right words!” Stella says. “That’s become very apparent, (he is) certainly focused, and also I would say demanding. You can see this characteristic already. The focus goes into being demanding for the team, and this will certainly help elevate the standards.
“Somehow, he challenges you, in a very polite, very constructive way. But he doesn’t take things superficially or just kind of stop challenging just for pleasing the environment; this is not what we want.
“We want to be challenged, and this sense I said that he is a demanding guy that should help elevate the standards. In a way it’s by just constantly being a little unhappy, which is a good position for a driver to be.”
But Piastri’s very happy really, because his dream of being an F1 driver is about to become true.