It’s been so easy all through 2023 to get excited about Oscar Piastri. Virtually from the start he’s been impressive, even when the McLaren MCL60 wasn’t initially capable of getting the results.

    From what we’d seen in his rapid rise to first-year championships in both Formula 3 in 2020 and then Formula 2 in 2021, it was clear that there was something special going on with the young kid from Melbourne – so, much was expected. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. But each time he’s moved up, he’s always looked like he belonged. And F1 proved no different.

    WATCH: Rookie of the Year Oscar Piastri discusses his phenomenal inaugural season in F1

    He could scarcely have had a tougher team mate than Lando Norris, a super-quick and these days very confident star who is the young gun most likely to be the next first-time Grand Prix winner. And he did so against the backdrop of that contact tug-of-war between Alpine and McLaren.

    Then there was the fact that he was taking the seat of a fellow countryman. Yes, you could argue that if he hadn’t taken Daniel Ricciardo’s ride somebody else most likely would have, but that can’t have made life easy at times.

    And then there was the fact that the MCL60, by the team’s own frank admission, was far from where they wanted it to be initially. And that when it got updated, Lando as team leader naturally got all the available goodies first.

    Oscar respected that his team mate had long paid those dues, and waited patiently for his turn. In many ways his driving reflected that same patience: do your best when treading water when necessary, but push hard when the chance arrives.

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Oscar Piastri of Australia and McLaren prepares to drive in the
    Piastri was at the centre of a contract tug of war between Alpine and McLaren for 2023

    But none of that seemed to bother him at all – certainly not outwardly. He will just have factored it all in, aware that it was part and parcel of the learning curve, because he’s so clearly one of those drivers who never believes they can know enough, even if some of it might be negative, but knows what to worry about and what to let go.

    In that respect, he is mature way beyond his years. Several times, when things weren’t great, he would simply say something like, “So it’s all in the bank and that’s what I’m out there for, to learn”. I liked that he would add, “at the moment”. He knows his time will come.

    READ MORE: Piastri on dealing with massive expectation in his rookie year – and the weekend everything changed in 2023

    Then there was the fact that he felt no compunction at the outset to ask either Lando or Daniel for advice about F1. It was just another sign of the quiet confidence he exudes. He’d watch, he’d listen and he’d ask for guidance – but he’d do things his own way.

    Let’s just remind ourselves of what he’s done this year…

    Of necessity (given the state of the MCL60) he made a low-key debut in Bahrain, where his race was hampered by an electrical problem. Then he qualified a surprising eighth in Saudi Arabia before finishing 15th after a collision early on with Alpine’s Pierre Gasly dropped him back.

    2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: Piastri and Gasly make contact on Lap 1 before Norris hits the debris
    2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: Piastri and Gasly make contact on Lap 1 before Norris hits the debris

    That obliged him to complete the remaining 49 laps on Pirelli’s hard tyre, but he managed that. And there was a moment when he temporarily passed Lando, who was having problems of his own.

    He scored his first points with eighth place third time out on his home turf in Australia, then finished 11th in Azerbaijan, 19th in Miami when the car was horrible, 10th in Monaco, 13th in Spain and 11th in Canada.

    But the good times were around the corner. He might have been only 16th in Austria, but that was where Lando got the big new upgrade and finished fourth.

    READ MORE: Under the hood of McLaren’s sensational Silverstone step change in pace

    When the car wasn’t quick Oscar would be clean and patient, resisting the temptation to try pushing it to do things it couldn’t do. And he’d spend Fridays learning the track and how the car behaved, then would push and be much closer to Lando on Saturdays.

    Once the MCL60 was quicker – such as from Silverstone where he got a chunk of the upgrade – he was running near the front and not far off Lando’s times. Lando took the fight to Lewis Hamilton there, beating the seven time champion. And now that he had a much better means of expressing himself on track, Oscar impressed greatly by hounding the Mercedes driver for the final podium slot.

    NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09: Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes
    Piastri put in a superb drive at Silverstone, pushing Lewis Hamilton all the way to the flag

    In Hungary he ran behind leader Max Verstappen for a time, and ultimately finished fifth. He was close to the Flying Dutchman again at Spa, leading the Sprint race briefly after starting alongside him and finishing second to the Red Bull, but though his Grand Prix ended in an early clash with Sainz’s Ferrari at La Source, he had made a huge impression on such a quick track.

    He was only ninth in Holland and 12th in Italy after problems, and seventh in Singapore as Lando scored a strong second with further upgrades on his car. Both cars were at the same specification again in Japan, where he joined Max and Lando to score his first pukka podium finish.

    READ MORE: Piastri singles out areas for improvement after maiden F1 podium in Japan

    Another followed in Qatar as he chased Max home while staying ahead of Lando. That, of course, was after he took the Sprint Pole and then won the Sprint itself – a breakthrough weekend for the young Aussie.

    2023 Qatar GP Sprint: Oscar Piastri crosses the line to take his maiden F1 victory in the Sprint
    2023 Qatar GP Sprint: Oscar Piastri crosses the line to take his maiden F1 victory in the Sprint

    Things fell apart a little in the final races, but a strong sixth behind Lando in the seasonal finale in Abu Dhabi, after a royal scrap with Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari’s and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine, rounded things off nicely.

    There’s a but here. But it’s a good but. Because if you study his racing in F3 and F2 (and bear in mind his raceless 2022) he’s done all this despite some seriously compromised track time.

    READ MORE: Piastri signs multi-year extension with McLaren until the end of 2026

    Covid shrank his F3 season and obliged him to be very, very consistent despite some DRS problems which did him no favours in qualifying. Then in F2 he lacked the funding to maximise his mileage before the season began, so focused again on being as consistent as possible while learning the ropes, then let fly with a series of stunning feature race results in the second half which propelled him to the title and into Alpine’s sights.

    Then came the unfortunate situation when he didn’t get to drive in a race throughout 2022. Imagine if that had happened with Jackie Stewart in 1965, or Lewis Hamilton in 2007 – if they’d had to wait a year on the sidelines with their obvious talent… Small wonder that manager Mark Webber has deemed that ridiculous.

    Oscar Piastri Alpine F1 Team, portrait, during the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring
    Without a race seat at Alpine, Piastri had to watch on from the sidelines in 2023

    To have handled all of those varied adventures described earlier with such unflustered aplomb, with that background of lost track time, made his debut season all the more impressive for me, because it wasn’t as if he was able to come into F1 on a tide of racing momentum, as Jackie and Lewis had.

    If I’m asked to come up with a driver that Oscar reminds me of most, however, I look at Alain Prost in 1980, his rookie year.

    When Alain came into F1 – with McLaren of course – he was quick straight away (despite missing time with an early injury), and capable of out-qualifying his experienced team mate John Watson (who was certainly no slouch) in the first 10 of the 14 races.

    BEYOND THE GRID: Alain Prost on Ayrton Senna, his 1993 title – and almost rejoining Ferrari

    We all came to see Alain, and Niki Lauda, as human computers who logged everything and forgot nothing – but only once they’d got a few youthful excesses out of their systems early in their careers.

    Oscar has that similar sort of computer-like mind, but its allied to that almost preternatural calmness, and by and large he’s avoided those sort of excesses thus far. That’s impressed me hugely.

    Alain Prost and John Watson with a mclaren. (Photo by: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty
    Alain Prost (R) alongside McLaren team mate John Watson in 1980

    He seems to have a lot of self-control. And before you raise the point, I regard what happened with Sainz at Spa (see the clip below) as a 50/50. You’re not going to start where Oscar did and not race for the inside line into the first corner…

    So he’s already done more than enough to be recognised and accepted as himself, and I have no doubt that next year his name is going to get bigger and bigger. When it comes to hot young up-comers, McLaren have that slice of the market cornered very nicely.

    READ MORE: The day the McLaren story began – and Bruce McLaren set a record that would last for over 40 years

    There have been times when it’s clear his race pace hasn’t quite matched Lando’s after they proved evenly matched in qualifying. Japan springs to mind, where he finished 17.107s off his team-mate, and his fastest lap of 1m 36.328s was well off Lando’s 1m 35.247s best.

    But already, next time out in Qatar, it was clear he’d learned a lot from that episode and put that acquired knowledge into practice. But first of all he’d taken Sprint Pole and beaten Max by just under two seconds in the Sprint itself – marking one of the rare occasions on which the triple champion was bested all season.

    2023 Belgian Grand Prix: Piastri forced to retire from the race after Lap1 contact in Spa
    2023 Belgian Grand Prix: Piastri forced to retire from the race after Lap1 contact in Spa

    In the Grand Prix he moved quickly up from sixth on the grid to second and stayed ahead of Lando as they kept Max on his toes there – arguably it was the hardest anyone genuinely pushed Red Bull all season as the three-stop strategies meant that the top three were all driving flat-out between pit calls.

    Of course they love him chez McLaren. Zak Brown goes all gooey talking about him (rightly so given he was the one smart enough to give him a race drive), and Andrea Stella clearly loves working with him. “He doesn’t have nervous reactions,” Andrea says. “You can trust what he’s saying, he’s not adding anything speculatively because he needs to promote himself.”

    READ MORE: Brown hails impact of ‘tremendous leader’ Stella in first year as McLaren team boss

    So here we are, praising a rookie for his impressive graduation. And rightly so. In his debut season he not only took everything F1 had to throw at him with that calm grace – including losing that third place grid slot in Qatar without batting an eyelash even when he was informed while being interviewed live on TV – without ever seeming to lose his focus or temper.

    He started off downplaying his expectations, and stated clearly defined and reasonable goals: learn as much as possible every time you get in the car; get up to speed as quickly as possible; find the right way to fast-track those processes. And then take whatever results came from all that. Throughout 2023 that strategy has served him, and McLaren, very well.

    Oscar Piastri on his remarkable F1 rookie season
    Oscar Piastri on his remarkable F1 rookie season

    If Hollywood was to consider reshooting The Right Stuff movie, the one about how young fighter pilots transitioned into the first astronauts, Oscar would be a shoe-in for the role of Gordo Cooper – the smiling young jock who circulated higher, faster and further in space and was renowned for ‘maintaining an even strain’.

    If the latest McLaren rocket ship is good enough, who’s the sophomore racer most likely to win a Grand Prix in 2024? You’re looking at him…

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