Feature F1 Unlocked
EXCLUSIVE: Piastri on dealing with massive expectation in his rookie year – and the weekend everything changed in 2023
Few rookies have gone into their debut Formula 1 campaigns with as much expectation as Oscar Piastri – and few have shone quite as brightly.
The Australian racer was in high demand, as the tussle for his services between long-time backers Alpine and his current team McLaren proved. That level of noise brings much more attention along with it, regardless of how many Grands Prix you’ve raced in.
But in 2023, it was Piastri’s on-track performances that did the talking in what he admits has been the ‘busiest year of his life’. His rookie campaign culminated in 97 points and ninth place in the drivers’ championship – the highest achieved by a rookie since Alex Albon scored 92 points in 2019 for Toro Rosso and Red Bull – but that only skims over what has been accomplished.
There was that near-podium finish at Silverstone, a third place in Japan and an exhilarating Sprint victory in Qatar. That, itself, was followed by a P2 in the Grand Prix the next day. Quite simply people are excited – really excited – about where the 22-year-old can go from here.
‘There was a lot of expectation coming into the year’
There’s no denying the expectation on the young Australian’s shoulders coming into Formula 1, Piastri was – and is – acutely aware of the talk that surrounded him.
Not only was there the battle to sign him up for 2023, but he also had an exemplary record in the junior categories to live up to that included winning the 2020 F3 and 2021 F2 championships.
Naturally the questions surrounding a young driver are how they are going to cope at the highest level, and for Piastri that was no different.
“A lot of it [confidence] – for right or wrong – comes from results and I think all it takes sometimes is one good result and then you’ve got the belief that you can do it,” Piastri explains as we reflect on his 2023.
“For me, I've always tried to not look at the results, and go on how I've felt things have gone and how well I think I’ve driven.
“In F1 there's only your team mate that you can directly compare to, and Lando [Norris] has been a very good benchmark. So, in some ways, at the start anyway, seeing how I fared was a bit of a measuring stick for myself.
“That's probably been the thing that's given me the confidence and then the results later in the year as well. But also, just simply knowing that I can mix it with these guys and now that I’m here with McLaren for another three years at least, all of those things help your confidence.
“I tried to play it down, but there was a lot of expectation coming into the year. With the junior record that I had – obviously it wasn't the most straightforward path to F1 at the end – so there was a lot of external expectation. And also, for myself, I really wanted to go out there and perform and try and do what I've been able to do in the junior categories.”
‘I was feeling the love that weekend’
The signs of the performances to come were evident early on, with Piastri singling out his qualifying in Saudi Arabia as that first key success. The rookie reached Q3 for the first time in Jeddah, eventually finishing in P9 – one place behind Lewis Hamilton.
While that was undoubtedly "pretty cool" for the McLaren rookie, the race the following day was less so. A P15 was as good as it got and, as Piastri freely admits, ‘people don’t really notice if you had a good weekend and finish 12th or 13th.’
McLaren’s incredible in-season developments, and their showing at Silverstone, changed all that. Suddenly Piastri was in a fight for the podium and, without the unluckiest of Safety Cars, could well have achieved it.
Instead Hamilton was able to take a free stop to climb ahead into P3 – but it was still a then career-high P4 finish for the Australian. Despite those raw feelings about what could have been, suddenly there seemed to be a wider realisation among the fans about what this rookie was really capable of.
“I would say it was big… I was feeling the love that weekend definitely,” Piastri says when I ask him if he sensed that following the British Grand Prix.
“It was definitely my – I still think to be honest – it was probably my most complete weekend, or one of the two, for the year. I was very happy with it.
“Personally, I think also it being the team’s home race, we had a lot of support in the crowd. Both me and Lando were performing well that weekend so I was certainly feeling the love from the crowd, from the media – not that I'd really paid that much attention to the media side of things.
“But it's always nice to have people saying good things about you I guess. That was really the first weekend where it picked up and also the first weekend where I went, ‘that was a solid weekend that I feel like I got the most out of myself’.”
‘I've always tried to switch off’
There have been plenty more additions to the Oscar Piastri highlights reel following that British Grand Prix performance. The Australian listed Qatar as his favourite – where he bagged his Sprint win and a P2 in the Grand Prix – and he picked out his Sprint pole celebration as his favourite image of his year.
But it can be very easy to get caught up in all that success, particularly with the spotlight seemingly never off you as a driver for a team like McLaren. For Piastri, separating out his F1 life with his own life has been a vital part of this year.
“I've been quite conscious in being able to switch off and it's something I've learned through my junior career,” he explains. “I think moving to the UK quite young, and sort of taking a big decision to follow my dream of being an F1 driver, I kind of learned a lot of things along the way potentially earlier than some others.
“From that side of things I was pretty comfortable with what worked for me and what didn’t work for me before I came to F1. Of course, we've got so many races that in some ways, instead of switching off for a few weeks, it's now for a day or two.
“That side of things is a little bit of an adjustment. But I do think it's very important to switch off because I would say overthinking doesn't help many people. Yes, you might get some things, but more often than not, I've found that it's not that useful.
“So yeah, I've always tried to switch off. I still enjoy racing, and stuff like that, outside of the race weekends. I've got a simulator just behind my shoulder here that I play quite a bit – not to try and really learn anything, but just for fun and just because I enjoy driving.”
That’s arguably the key for Piastri, and perhaps why he rarely seems flustered in the cockpit of an F1 car – he has always kept that sense of fun in what he does.
“It is a job, it's very high pressure,” he adds. “There's, like you said, a lot of people looking at you.
“But, at the same time, I'm one of 20 people in the world that gets to drive an F1 car, and I know I'd be a lot more unhappy if I wasn't an F1 driver. You've got to remember the element of fun – that’s why we all start out in racing because we enjoy it.
“Yes, it gets a little bit tougher to always recognise that because it is a job. There's a lot at stake for, not just myself, but a lot of people in the team. But at the same time, if I wasn't enjoying it, I wouldn't be doing it.
“For me, just going out there, driving the fastest cars in the world, trying to beat the best drivers in the world, that is part of the fun for me.”
‘I've always felt part of the team’
When it was confirmed that Piastri would be driving for McLaren alongside Lando Norris, plenty was said about the team arguably having the most exciting driver pairing in the sport. You’d be hard pushed to find a duo with that much future potential certainly.
What there is no debate over is how happy the team are to have them both with Piastri signing a multi-year extension until the end of 2026, midway through this year, while Norris is tied down to at least the end of 2025.
And what there is also no debate over is how much Piastri is enjoying life with McLaren and his relationship with his team mate.
“It's been really good, even from the beginning,” he says. “I felt very, very welcomed by the team.
“From that side of things, I've always felt part of the team. The relationship with Lando has been very good from the start, especially our working relationship – it has been very strong.
“We've always said quite similar things about what we want from the car, which I guess is reassuring for the engineers and also for us, that we want the same things. Of course, there are slight differences here and there, but broadly it’s the same picture, which is very useful, and then we've been getting to know each other better and better through the year.
“I feel like we're in a good place. Obviously, we're going to be alongside each other for a few more years to come, which is exciting. But I feel like I'm definitely part of the team and looking forward to the next few years.”
The aforementioned McLaren upgrades during the season certainly helped to propel the team forward, eventually finishing P4 in the constructors’ championship when that had looked an impossible prospect at the start of the campaign.
Now there’s a sense that they are the ones with the momentum as the mission to close the gap to Red Bull in 2024 gets underway through the winter. For Piastri there is undoubted excitement about what comes next, but also a hint of a caution.
“I want to say quietly optimistic,” he answers when I ask how excited he is for 2024. “We're in a good place at the moment, we've got a lot of momentum, but you never quite know what everyone else is going to come out with for the next season.
“We saw the change in form for Aston Martin – from the end of last year to the start of this year – was night and day different so there's no stopping anyone else from doing the same. We've done it mid-season so there's no guarantees that no one else would do the same thing too.
“I think we're in a really good place, and I think the team is working really well, and through this second part of the year I think we're getting more and more used to running at the front again. We haven't been in this position as a team for 10 years, more or less.
“We're getting used to that again, which is also very exciting. I think we're in a good place and hopefully we can continue that forward.”