RACING

Why Piastri’s F1 bid to join McLaren has risky implications

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Anthony was pissed off enough by the situation at McLaren that he felt the need to express his thoughts to this writer.

The bottom line was that he and his son were frustrated with McLaren’s lack of information about the future. Understandably, Hamilton Sr felt his son was more than ready for F1 and he wanted McLaren to promote him to a racing seat. If they don’t, Anthony suggested, we’ll go somewhere else.

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A few weeks later, McLaren announced that Hamilton was indeed going straight into an F1 seat for 2007, alongside Fernando Alonso.

Sixteen years later, history is repeating itself. Once again, the man of the moment and his management seem frustrated with the team supporting his career. And curiously, Alonso and McLaren feature again in the story.

The big difference is that this time the hurried young man spared himself and left his mentors in the lurch, having determined that the grass was greener elsewhere.

The saga of Oscar Piastri and Alpine is far from over, and it remains to be seen how it plays out legally.

However, both parties have made their positions clear. Alpine are confident they have a contractual hold on the youngster for 2023, while Piastri and his management believe they were free to sign for McLaren.

Oscar Piastri, reserve driver, Alpine F1 Team arrives in the paddock

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

As a reminder, it was in January 2020 that Piastri was announced as a member of what was then the Renault Driver Academy. His signing was the result of his victory in the Eurocup series, as the possibility of being affiliated with the F1 team was one of the prizes, if the driver wanted it.

Mark Webber helped seal the deal, but it wasn’t until several weeks later that the former Red Bull driver was publicly confirmed as Piastri’s manager in a press release from his company, JAM Sports Management.

JAM is not a one man band. Webber works with a team led by his wife Ann, who has done so much to advance her own career, and a CEO in the form of Australian entrepreneur Jason Allen. JAM also looks after Formula E driver Mitch Evans, world javelin champion Kelsey-Lee Barber and several rising stars in two-wheeled motorsport.

The company’s website notes that “our approach to business is based on simple core values; integrity, honesty, loyalty, respect, responsibility and commitment.”

In 2020 and 2021, Renault and then Alpine supported Piastri in his victories in the FIA ​​F3 and F2 championships, successes which propelled him to the gates of F1 perhaps faster than expected.

This created a problem. With Alonso and Esteban Ocon signed up for 2022, Alpine had no choice but to put Piastri on hold in a reserve driver role while preparing for F1 with private testing in an old car, the odd session FP1 and endless simulation.

The second problem was always going to come in 2023. Ocon was still listed, and it was obvious that Alonso had every intention of extending his stay.

That’s why, a few months ago, Alpine started talking to Williams about a temporary loan deal, similar to the one that ultimately worked out so well for George Russell and the Grove team.

Then, at some point in the last few weeks, McLaren came into the picture. Team principal Andreas Seidl worked closely with Webber during the Porsche WEC era, and they remained close. Additionally, Piastri was named a reserve McLaren driver in March, courtesy of Alpine.

It was therefore not difficult for McLaren to ask Webber the simple question: would Piastri come to see us if we could offload Daniel Ricciardo?

Mark Webber, Oscar Piastri and Ann Webber

Mark Webber, Oscar Piastri and Ann Webber

Photo by: Uncredited

Inevitably, Webber and Piastri were interested, as McLaren would clearly be a step up from Williams. The big difference was that Zak Brown and his colleagues wanted to claim the youngster fully and not leave Alpine with him “on a string” to be brought back in 2024 or 2025.

Webber confirmed that in his view Piastri was indeed able to sign contractually for McLaren, with no connection to Alpine.

It was only after such a deal was struck, initially for Piastri to take on a reserve role in 2023 pending a settlement with Ricciardo, that Alonso stunned Alpine by signing for Aston Martin – without even officially quitting. talks about 2023 and beyond.

This meant that his Alpine seat was suddenly available for Piastri. However, this ship had sailed…

By the time the saga unfolded early last week, Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer and CEO Laurent Rossi were already well aware that Piastri had been seduced by McLaren. They quickly played their legal game by announcing that he would be racing for Alpine next year, knowing that the likely answer would be “No, I’m not”, which is exactly what happened.

The McLaren camp insists it’s free from Alpine and the relevant piece of paper just hasn’t been signed (there wasn’t a July 31 deadline on an option, or something like that).

The implication is that Alpine management took their eyes off the ball and misjudged the driver market, failing to foresee that Alonso and Piastri would both find other opportunities, and the team would suddenly drop from three single pilots.

Alpine sources refute this and suggest that the documents the team has ensure they still have until December 31 to decide what to do with Piastri next year, whether to put him in the Alpine seat or place him at Williams. There is in turn an option for 2024 which runs until mid-September 23.

Oscar Piastri, reserve driver, Alpine F1 Team

Oscar Piastri, reserve driver, Alpine F1 Team

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

Whatever the legal situation, did Webber and Piastri make the right choice?

Naturally, every driver wants to be in the best possible car as quickly as possible.

However, a year or even two alongside Alex Albon at Williams would have been a decent place to learn. Not going straight into a big team didn’t hurt Russell, or Alonso at Minardi, Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso, and Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc at Sauber, to name a few.

In fact, Piastri is walking away not from Williams, but from the chance to start his career at Alpine, a team of factory builders, let’s not forget.

Ocon has been there for a while and is well established, but Piastri himself has been in the camp for three years. He would have had the full support of a team that had invested in him, and thus given him time to find his bearings and make the kind of mistakes that rookies usually have to go through and learn from.

At McLaren, he will evolve in an unfamiliar environment and will face Lando Norris, Zak Brown’s protege, who will be in his fifth year with the team. Norris is really good and totally at home in the Woking camp, having come through the ranks as a McLaren junior.

Piastri, hugely talented as he obviously is, will be the underdog, the man who also has to prove to the world that it was worth offloading Ricciardo. The story may say he does just that, but that’s a tough question.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

An obvious question remains: will McLaren be more competitive than Alpine in the next three or four years? No one can answer that question yet, and so going to McLaren is a draw in some ways.

It is inevitable that the dispute will now progress to the Contract Recognition Board, the body that F1 teams agreed many years ago would make judgments on these matters.

It may well be that Piastri and Webber are right on a legal technicality, and that Alpine has indeed overlooked something, or forgotten to tick a box, allowing the young Aussie to escape any engagement. You could say it was typical F1 practice – the Piranha Club in action.

However, Alpine has made it clear that there’s something here that goes beyond any legalese buried in a contract, and that’s loyalty and the other core values ​​highlighted by JAM’s own website.

Sometimes young drivers linked to F1 teams can find themselves in a bind, and you can’t blame them for wanting to get out of it.

However, Renault/Alpine had a real intention of getting Piastri from Formula Renault to F1, and the team did everything they could to make that happen, despite the Alonso/Ocon traffic jam which seemed likely to force him to undertake his apprenticeship in F1 at Williams.

Consider what Alpine has put into Piastri’s career in 2022 alone. So far he’s covered some 3,500km out of a planned 5,000km total of private testing, including a race in the RS18 at Paul Ricard in February, followed by sessions in the A521 at COTA, Doha, the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone and Monza.

Two FP1 outings were due to take place at some point after the summer break.

The team spent millions of dollars carrying out these tests and preparing him to arrive in F1 as prepared as possible.

And in return, Piastri and Webber appear to have waved the proverbial middle finger at Alpine and headed into the Woking sunset.

In doing so, they angered not only Alpine and the wider Renault group, but also Williams, snubbed in favor of McLaren.

Piastri could well prove so good and in demand that McLaren will soon be battling advances from Ferrari, Mercedes and even Red Bull, so he won’t have to worry about alienated teams further down the grid.

Oscar Piastri, Alpine

Oscar Piastri, Alpine

Picture by: Alpine

However, F1 is a small world. You never know when Piastri might need a favor later. You might also assume that the next time Webber has a young driver in tow, he might not find it so easy to get support.

The big picture is what this case could mean for junior motorsport programs. A company like Renault, with board members and shareholders to answer to, may think twice the next time their F1 team asks them to back a young driver.

Why invest millions if the guy can jump so easily?

There remains a strong possibility that Alpine’s next step could go beyond the CRB and into the civil courts, should the team decide it wants back what it spent to prepare Piastri for F1.

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