Oscar Piastri’s Formula 1 debut with McLaren is a huge challenge for a number of reasons.
You will join a team with serious ambitions and need to perform at a high level quickly. He’s replacing a popular driver in Daniel Ricciardo who suffered a very public struggle to take on a car repeatedly described as unusual, and he’s doing it. as a teammate of Lando Norris, one of the most highly rated young drivers in F1.
It’s a daunting situation to race as a rookie. Not too long ago, McLaren didn’t have the best reputation for handling that. Kevin Magnussen had lasted one season before being replaced, Stoffel Vandoorne managed two but was brought down by Fernando Alonso in his second year.
That raised questions about what was in store for Norris when he made his own debut with the team in 2019. But Norris flourished. McLaren proved to be a good place to exploit his obvious potential and obviously the plan will be to do the same for Piastri.
So what can Piastri expect?
“It’s a team that’s very willing to go out of their way to help,” says Norris.
“With what they have done with Daniel in recent years, we have changed everything in the car to try to adapt it to his driving style and to the driver that he is.
“But also, I think what they’re very good at, you’re very laid back. It is a very nice atmosphere.
“Going into Formula 1, I felt the pressure of being a Formula 1 driver, but I think what they were very good at is not making you feel like there is too much pressure being a McLaren Formula 1 driver.
“And they will do everything they can, whether it is their engineers or Andrea [Stella, executive director] or Andreas [Seidl], you’re welcome, but also making you feel comfortable as much as possible. And doing everything possible externally so that you feel more comfortable as well, whether it’s with media and marketing and all that.
“Whatever makes the driver perform better, then they will try to do it.
“But the most important thing is the atmosphere. They all know each other very well. Everyone is very helpful, very friendly.
“Of course, I will be biased in saying that McLaren is very good at it, because I am not good with another team. But I do think they are probably better than most teams in that regard.”
Piastri should fit in well in that environment. He has shown himself to be hardworking and intelligent during his time in the Alpine program and committed to learning as much as possible. His diligence has been impressive and he has paid dividends with the way he has progressed as a driver in Formula 3 and Formula 2.
McLaren has described him as a “perfect fit” in terms of “potential and personality”.
“We wanted to have him on board, he wanted to be with us, so we’re very happy,” says McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl.
“From the way we met him, we are absolutely convinced of his talent and also of his potential. He is young, he is full of energy, he also has the right amount of self-confidence.
“But at the same time he is very humble. And he is aware of how big the challenge is for him next year.
“We are a team that has shown in the past that we can treat very well [with] or handle youngsters entering the sport very well.
“So, I’m looking forward to starting with him next year.”
A key difference between Piastri and Norris is that Piastri will not be integrated into the team before his debut. Norris had tested for McLaren and participated in Friday practice sessions before getting the drive, then put in more miles before pre-season.
Now that the Dutch GP weekend is over, Alpine will consider what it wants to do with Piastri for the rest of the year. Alpine have not ruled out releasing Piastri from his 2022 contract early (at a cost, one can guess), but it could play hardball and deny Piastri the opportunity to work with McLaren until January.
Piastri has extensive testing experience with Alpine – 3500km, much to Alpine’s irritation now that he is leaving, but as far as McLaren is concerned, he may just have a condensed simulator program and no track time before the only pre-season test planned for Bahrain.
“We have shown in the past with Lando that we are a team that can be a good place for a rookie to start in Formula 1,” says Seidl.
“I think in the team that I have I feel quite comfortable knowing what a young driver needs in the car, outside the car, in terms of the environment to be as prepared as possible when he starts his first race. in Formula 1 next year in Bahrain.
“The goal is clear, as soon as we can start working with Oscar we will do a lot of hard work together with Oscar with a clear agenda of what we want to achieve.
“And like I said before I’ve shown with Lando that this worked out pretty well, I’m pretty sure we can handle this as well.”
There is no guarantee that Piastri’s move will be a success. But given that McLaren and Ricciardo’s effort to make it work has been futile, it could be argued that McLaren had nothing to lose (except Ricciardo’s bribe money) by making the switch.
McLaren, unsurprisingly, doesn’t see it that way. His attention is focused on the immense potential of the Norris/Piastri lineup.
“We believe in Oscar, we have Lando on board who has shown that he is one of the best in this paddock,” says Seidl.
“So I think we’ve got a great setup going forward, so we’re really looking forward to racing these two guys.”
McLaren is not likely to win races in 2023, but by the time Piastri is fully up to speed, for 2024, the Woking outfit is expected to produce much more competitive machinery.
That is when the new wind tunnel and simulator should contribute to the design of the car. And Seidl says: “Together with Oscar and Lando, I am convinced that we can take this final step.”
The last three McLaren rookies
McLaren has managed three rookie drivers over the last decade. That’s how it went.
KEVIN MAGNUSSEN (2014)
Magnussen’s Formula 1 career couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, finishing third on the road on his debut and then moving up to second after Daniel Ricciardo was excluded from the Australian Grand Prix.
In a difficult year for McLaren, Magnussen had a good season. There were a few bumps along the way and he struggled a bit in the final third of the season in relation to team-mate Jenson Button apart from an excellent run to fifth at Sochi. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have kept the momentum going.
But with McLaren pushing the boat to bring back Fernando Alonso amid the promise of the Honda partnership in 2015 and Button proving his worth with a strong second half of the year, Magnussen was relegated to reserve driver.
STOFFEL VANDOORNE (2017; only in 2016)
Having impressed in his one-off start replacing Alonso at Bahrain in 2016, Vandoorne’s first full season the following year was a challenging one.
But after a rocky start, with Alonso averaging six tenths, things turned around after he and the team put significant effort into adapting his driving style to better suit the car. This often meant sacrificing a bit on turn entry to maximize speed in and out of the turn.
That led to an improvement in his qualifying form in particular. He finished the year beating Alonso on three occasions with an average deficit of 0.2%, although his race pace was not as strong relative to his team-mate.
He finished the year with three points and a best finish of seventh (twice) but finished just four points behind Alonso in a terrible year for McLaren. But the improvement he made during the year was more than enough to convince McLaren to stick with him.
LANDO NORRIS (2019)
Norris’ rookie season started well with a Q3 appearance in Australia and then his first points finish of sixth in Bahrain. That laid the groundwork for a strong campaign.
He had bad luck in his first season, although as the season progressed it became increasingly difficult for him to face his teammate Carlos Sainz in the standings. There were also a few mistakes, including some misjudgments on the first lap, but nothing more than you’d expect from a driver in his first season.
And given the difficulties of adjusting to the demands of McLaren, for Norris to fit in and ensure his future was never really in doubt – his continued presence with the team was confirmed in mid-July – was remarkable.
He finished the season with 52 points to Sainz’s 95 with the main ‘must do better’ being the need to improve consistency.