The rise of Oscar Piastri: A genuine rival for Lando Norris at last

A year on from his acrimonious exit from Alpine, Piastri’s boldness looks fully justified after signing a new long-term deal with McLaren and recording his first podium finish on Sunday at Suzuka

Kieran Jackson
Formula 1 Correspondent
Monday 25 September 2023 15:03 BST
Piastri Signs Multi-Year Contract Extension with McLaren

Much like most of the scenarios thrown up on his journey to the top echelons of motorsport, Oscar Piastri takes everything consummately in his stride. Strikingly level-headed and rational – notwithstanding an unflappable self-belief in his ability behind the wheel – a week which started with the 22-year-old signing a new contract with McLaren until the end of 2026 ended with his first podium in Formula One at Suzuka. It was quite a few days for the rookie Australian, whose meteoric rise through the ranks shows no signs of subsiding.

What’s more, it was a weekend that fully justified Piastri’s bold move a year ago, when the soap opera of his first forays into F1 dominated the paddock. It was a storyline of dreams for Netflix’s Drive to Survive producers when Piastri, a test driver at Alpine, rebuked the Enstone-based team who’d announced his 2023 drive as a replacement for Fernando Alonso. We would later learn that the 2021 F2 champion had already penned a deal to join McLaren, with Zak Brown and the papaya targeting fresh blood following Daniel Ricciardo’s season of underachievement.

It was a line of attack which carried much risk. Alpine beat McLaren to fourth in the constructors’ championship last year and many onlookers saw the switch as unwise from a competitive viewpoint. More pointedly, though, the impact it would have on Piastri’s moral standing in the sport was something emphasised by then Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer. The Renault-works outfit had invested millions of pounds into Piastri’s development, with countless test opportunities and financial backing through the junior series.

But Piastri, managed by nine-time race winner and fellow Australian Mark Webber, was undeterred. He was set to be overlooked by Alpine for 2023 before Alonso’s surprise switch to Aston Martin and, feeling undervalued, he went on the search for other options fully aware he could ill-afford another season on the sidelines after not racing in 2022. A loan to Williams was on the table but McLaren, an eight-time constructors’ champion and giant of the sport despite their recent struggles, was his preference.

The start was not smooth, though. McLaren acknowledged at the start of the year that they had not met their off-season development targets and the mood at the car launch at their impressive Woking HQ in February was decidedly pessimistic. Piastri’s F1 debut, in Bahrain, ended in retirement.

But those early shortcomings were no fault of Piastri, despite a year on the sidelines. It is one of the more questionable rules of Formula Two that the winner then cannot race in the series the next year, often leaving the champion in the wilderness. Brazilian racer Felipe Drugovich, last year’s champion, has acted as a reserve this year for Aston Martin and is struggling to find an F1 seat next year, though Williams has recently been mooted. This year’s F2 leader, Theo Pouchaire, is a test driver with Alfa Romeo but now looks set for a year without racing in 2024. It would make sense, it seems, to offer an exception should the champion not land a seat at the top table.

Nonetheless, after scoring his first points following his home race at Albert Park, Piastri had to wait until Austria in July for a raft of game-changing upgrades which handed him and Lando Norris a shot at regular top-10 finishes. He has since scored in five of the last seven races, as well as a second-place finish in the sprint race in Belgium. Enough for McLaren to swiftly extend his deal.

Piastri won Formula 2 in 2021 but then spent a year on the sidelines
Piastri won Formula 2 in 2021 but then spent a year on the sidelines (Getty Images)

“It’s always nice to have a sense of security,” said Piastri. “It made sense from my point of view and from a team point of view. That longevity and continuation together – [it’s] nice confidence for us all.”

It continues the Melbourne local’s rapid ascent. He landed a junior role at Alpine, formerly Renault, by winning the Formula Renault Eurocup in 2019. A year later, he won Formula Three before his F2 victory in 2021. A decision at 15 years of age to relocate to the UK for his racing was reaping the rewards. Now, after a first podium following a front-row start at Suzuka, Piastri has emerged as genuine competition for Norris – long labelled the team’s No 1.

“I think it exceeded most people’s expectations from what he’s been able to achieve already this season,” Norris said on Thursday, after Piastri penned his extension. “He’s pushed me a lot – it’s not a nice thing, it’s not what I want – but he’s done a very good job so congrats to him for [continuing for] another few years.”

Lando Norris – long labelled the team’s No 1 – now has genuine competition in the garage at McLaren
Lando Norris – long labelled the team’s No 1 – now has genuine competition in the garage at McLaren (Getty Images)

As the Brit hinted, the intra-team jousting is not something he has been used to in recent years. Crucially at this point, the pair get on well – both young, affable and with bundles of potential. But Piastri has emerged as a genuine rival to Norris at McLaren. Norris’s regular links to the second seat at Red Bull, despite a contract at McLaren until the end of 2025, are likely to have accelerated Brown’s willingness to pin down Piastri. But should Norris stay, it is undoubtedly a driver pairing capable of race victories in the future, should they be given the tools to do so.

In contrast to the start of 2023, it is now a time of much optimism for McLaren. The team signed ex-Red Bull chief Rob Marshall as their technical director in May. David Sanchez will join the engineering department in the new year from Ferrari. Andrea Stella, who replaced Andreas Seidl as team principal last year, works well in tandem with Brown. At this rate, they’re likely to haul in Aston Martin for fourth in the constructors’ championship too, with Alpine long left behind in sixth.

“What!! So we are doing this for another 3 years???” comically tweeted Piastri’s mum, Nicole, after the new contract was announced last week. That looks set to be a minimum. Should Piastri’s progress continue at the current trajectory, the Australian will be in F1 for a while longer yet.

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