Feature F1 Unlocked
RACING ROOTS: Oscar Piastri on his unusual route into racing, his move to England at 14 and his journey to F1
Oscar Piastri’s F1 career is just getting started and, on the evidence so far, it promises to be a long and fruitful one. But that journey to competing at the very top for McLaren has been years in the making...
There is understandably an enormous amount of excitement surrounding the Australian following his debut year in F1 – he enjoyed the best rookie year since Lewis Hamilton in 2007 after all. But to help understand the making of the man today, there’s a lot to discover in his past from his racing roots.
There have been several key moments in the 22-year-old’s formative years – notably his move to England at the age of 14 as he chased his motorsport ambitions – and some key people who have helped shape him every step of the way.
But what really drives Piastri is his competitiveness. You’d have to think that, if a multiverse theory is true, perhaps there are parallel Piastris performing equally well in other disciplines – sporting or otherwise.
His entry into motorsport was slightly unconventional – racing remote-control cars initially (just like Lewis Hamilton) – before he started karting at around nine years of age. But that innate competitive edge has always been present regardless of what he was doing.
“For me, even starting in remote control cars, the biggest thing about it was the competition,” says Piastri. “Growing up as a kid, before I started karting, I played quite a few sports and I always wanted to try and be better than other people.
“Even looking at how I was at school with my academic results, I always wanted to try and be the best. I think that was kind of the first element of it and it’s still the part I would say I almost enjoy the most now.
“I like cars, I like racing, but I think the competition side of things is probably the number one thing. That’s also competition with myself as well, just trying to be better and better.”
That competitiveness and focus has been clear throughout Piastri’s debut year in Formula 1, and manifests itself in a level of calm that has earned him plenty of admirers.
“I would say it definitely comes from my family, yes,” he says when asked where that sense of competition originates from. “I think, also, it comes from myself though. Some people maybe don’t see that side because of – I guess – my calmness.
“But it’s a calmness because of focus rather than a lack of care. That’s the thing with me, but definitely my family were all competitive people.”
He adds: “I’ve never been fiery or like that really. I would say I’ve always been competitive but never really fiery, or outspoken or exuberant. I do things in my own way and I’m very happy with how it goes.”
Oops! Error retrieving Instagram post
The moment Piastri dreamt of becoming a racing driver
Piastri is the first in his family to race and it was by no means a guarantee he would have ever gone down this path. There was, however, always an interest in cars within his family as the 22-year-old’s grandfather and father were both mechanics – and his dad’s business is in the automotive industry.
The McLaren racer has one of his dad’s business trips to thank for igniting that first love for racing, when he brought back a remote-control car from the US to Australia, which a young Piastri would drive around their back yard at home.
What followed was his introduction to remote-control car racing, before he started karting – and that first lap in a go-kart sticks in the Australian’s memory for all the wrong reasons…
“I remember it very well because I spun at the first proper corner!” he recalls. “I was backwards very quickly. But then, after that, I remember it quite well.
“It was actually a very busy day, so it wasn’t the best of first days to drive a go-kart. But I really enjoyed it, enjoyed going fast and the speed element – definitely the first time – was cool. It was a bit nerve-wracking at the start, but then very cool, and I was just trying to feel how much grip I had and where I could brake.”
To be looking for grip and braking points on his first karting experience perhaps sums up the natural talent Piastri had at his disposal as a child. And once that karting journey took off, so did his ambitions of making it as a racing driver.
“The first time I wanted to be a racing driver really was once I started karting,” he explains. “Before that I kind of wanted to be a sports player in something else, because I was playing other sports like cricket or Aussie rules football – not that I was good enough to be either of those but that’s kind of what I dreamt of.
“Then, once I started racing, I enjoyed it a lot. I was watching racing on TV and I wanted to be a racing driver from that point. I think the point where I believed I could actually be a racing driver was towards the end of my time karting. I was having some success and moved to Europe and from that point I wanted to be a racing driver – a professional racing driver in something.
“I didn’t really mind what if I’m honest, but I thought 'why not aim for F1 and see if you can get there?' From that point I wanted to be a racing driver and I think the point where I realised I could actually become an F1 driver was honestly in my F2 season.
“Winning F3, I kind of thought maybe the potential is there but, still, there’s been a lot of people that have got to F2 and not made it. So halfway through that F2 season was when I turned the dream of being an F1 driver into more of a goal I would say.
“Especially in F2, I knew that with the results I’d had up until that point there was a good chance that, even if F2 wasn’t as successful, I’d be able to become a professional in motorsport somewhere. But of course, when you’re that close, it seems like – and also with the results I’d had to that point – it would have felt like a shame to have not given myself the best opportunity to try and reach F1. So that was really the time I thought about actually becoming an F1 driver and then it was pretty cool having that realisation, definitely.”
Oops! Error retrieving Instagram post
Moving to the other side of the world at 14
Piastri’s move to England at the age of 14 was one of the key moments in his childhood journey to eventually making it in motorsport. At that age it is by no means an easy thing to move to the other side of the world – but he had the support of his family every step of the way as he worked to fulfil his ambitions.
“They were all very supportive,” Piastri says. “Of course, moving to the other side of the world, I’m sure my mum – like every mum – probably would have preferred if I could have stayed home at 14 but she was very supportive of me trying to chase my dream and chase my goal. My dad moved over with me for the first six months to help me settle in and stuff. He’d been there in my whole karting career, and been to pretty much all of my races, so he was very supportive.
“But yeah, I think they were proud of me for trying to chase my dreams. I think they are even more proud now that we’ve managed to make it happen and all the big decisions and certain sacrifices along the way have all been worth it.”
While there are associated difficulties with moving to boarding school in another country, Piastri doesn’t regret it for a moment.
“The actual move itself, I went to boarding school for four years when I moved and honestly that was a very good decision in hindsight because it allowed me to integrate with the community and get friends and stuff,” he explains. “And it also gave me a way of switching off from racing.
“I think for me, the gravity of why I was there never really dawned on me that much. I was always kind of there for, you know, looking in some ways at the shorter term. I’ll try and have a good race this weekend – or a good season – and take it step by step rather than going, ‘F1 is here, I want to get there and have many years’ or whatever.
“I never really thought of it like that and, in some ways, I think taking that approach, it never really dawns on you and weighs you down. I always just took it as it was. After the first couple of years there it sort of became more into my life.
“Instead of looking at it as moving away from home and trying to chase the dream, it was more like, ‘ok, now I’m here, this is my life’. It became a bit more normal in some ways and that’s kind of how I looked at it.”
'Knowing there’s been some successful Aussies before me was good to see'
Prior to landing his spot on the F1 grid with McLaren, Piastri did get a taste of the atmosphere on race day at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix when he was a “grid kid” for then-Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat. However, the Russian’s car failed to make it to the grid thanks to a break down on the out-lap – leaving a somewhat bemused Piastri holding a flag in front of Kvyat’s vacant space.
Before this experience, it was the 2009 edition of the Australian Grand Prix that marked the first race a young Piastri properly watched on TV – a race where, in Piastri’s words, “Brawn came out and smashed everyone”.
With the future F3 and F2 champion hooked, there were a plethora of outstanding drivers in that era to look up to – but some stood out in particular.
“At that age you kind of support more or less who’s winning – I was eight or nine years old,” Piastri explains. “Mark [Webber] was racing with Red Bull at the time so in those next few years when I was following the sport, or getting older and understanding it more, I was following Mark because he was either finishing first or second most of the time and also because he was Australian.
“He was the one I supported and now where I am, driving alongside people like Lewis [Hamilton] and Fernando [Alonso], watching Seb [Vettel] as well growing up, and now to have spoken to those people and be racing against them – that’s also very, very special.”
Of course, Webber is a key influence in Piastri’s corner these days, acting as the McLaren driver’s manager. In time Piastri would also have fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo to look up to – proving that racers from his homeland could reach the top and have successful careers in F1. Incidentally Ricciardo was also the first F1 driver Piastri got to meet, at the Karting World Championships in Bahrain in 2016.
“Knowing that those guys had made it, it gives you confidence and I think also – I don’t know what it is – but it kind of seems like every time there is an Australian on the grid, we’re not too bad,” Piastri says. “Knowing there’s been some successful Aussies before me as well was good to see.”
But, while inspiration is one thing, having advice and a knowledgeable voice in your ear is incredibly beneficial. That’s where Webber comes in, able to pass on his wealth of expertise from his own 12-season career in F1.
“I kind of looked up to them and having Mark in my corner has been incredibly influential,” Piastri acknowledges. “We started working together at the start of my F3 season and a lot of the behind the scenes work has been extremely helpful.
“Especially now that I’m in F1, Mark’s experience of F1 is invaluable. His experiences and stuff, and in some ways the bad things that happened in his career, are just as useful as the good things because he can tell me what not to do.
“In terms of the management side of things, he knows what to do and what not to do, so it makes my life much simpler not having to worry about that. But also just helping me with driving, executing a weekend, managing a season, all those kinds of things, it’s been very nice to have someone there who’s already done it.”
'Hard work can really make the difference'
No doubt there are many young hopefuls in Australia – and indeed across the world – dreaming of following in Piastri’s footsteps. The McLaren driver’s career in F1 may still be in its infancy, but it’s a journey that began many years ago and he has plenty of advice to give to those hoping to tread a similar path.
“The first one I always say is to have fun, and remember to enjoy it – and that you’re there because you love it,” he says. “I guess the second one is just to always try and improve and get better.
“Especially in the beginning of any sport, a lot of people can rely on natural talent and others can’t. I can’t remember exactly how the saying goes, but talent being nothing without hard work is, I think, very true. Of course, you need to have an element of talent but you need a lot of hard work as well to get there.
“Also in motorsport, given the money involved, the pressure involved, the hard work in some ways, it’s a lot harder to get there than some other sports – for different reasons than other sports. The hard work can really make the difference.”