Oscar Piastri’s maiden home Grand Prix, back in April, was just his third race in Formula One. The Australian driver, seen as one of the sport’s hottest talents, had had an indifferent start to life in the highest class of open-wheel, single-seater racing — 15th in Saudi Arabia after failing to finish his debut Grand Prix in Bahrain, retiring with an electrical problem.
But he looked unflustered as he took in Melbourne’s familiar scenery, knowing he would be the centre of attention of an estimated 140,000 fans. Piastri grew up a few miles down the coast from Albert Park and played cricket on the ovals that were being used as the race paddock. It’s fair to say the rookie had a day he will never forget. He survived a carnage-filled race and the drama of three red flags to collect his first championship points in F1.
Piastri finished eighth in front of adoring fans as eight rival cars fell by the wayside. “Chaos is how I would sum that up,” he said. “Crazy race.”
Those were early days, McLaren had an obvious straight-line speed deficit to rival teams, and Lando Norris was clearly the team’s lead driver. But McLaren boss Zak Brown felt Piastri already looked like he would give Norris a run for his money. “I think Oscar just needs a little bit more experience to put it together on a lap by lap basis in the way Lando can,” Brown said.
Six months later, McLaren has made stunning progress through the season even as Piastri has closed the gap to Norris in the battle of prodigiously talented teammates. The Australian has managed this despite often being a race behind the driver on the other side of the McLaren garage in terms of upgrades — Norris has had the benefit of bolting on newer parts first.
Piastri and Norris took second and third for a double podium finish for McLaren in the Qatar GP two weeks ago. This, after Piastri had enjoyed his first F1 victory (albeit not a Grand Prix win), taking the chequered flag first in the sprint race at the Losail Circuit. The 22-year-old had earned his first career podium in the previous GP in Suzuka. These milestones followed his first fastest lap in Italy, confirming the impression he has been getting better and better.
Piastri, who had said his main focus in 2023 was to set the foundations for a long F1 career, has played a big part in McLaren’s turnaround. He is piecing together a terrific rookie season, reminding some observers of how comfortable seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and three-time world champion Max Verstappen had looked in their early years.
While those comparisons may be contested — Hamilton contended for the title in his rookie season while Verstappen secured his first Grand Prix win as a teenager — there is no doubt that Piastri, in the right car, has what it takes to challenge the very best.
Impressive back catalogue
Piastri arrived in F1 with an impressive record, winning the Formula Renault, Formula Three and Formula Two titles at the first attempt. It showed that he clearly possessed the mentality to win and the ability to adapt quickly. “Through my junior career, I’ve had to change car every single year. I’ve never driven the same car for more than a year,” said the Melbourne native, who left for Britain as a 14-year-old. “I think adaptation is a big strength that you need in the junior categories, and I think that’s been prominent in mine.”
Piastri’s calm, methodical approach — allied to his natural talent — makes him a formidable competitor. Indeed, former F1 driver Mark Webber, who mentors Piastri, felt his protege “was a Prost”, detecting echoes of the four-time world champion’s cerebral approach.
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella was impressed by Piastri’s method in Suzuka. “I’ve seen the qualities that he deployed, they are very similar all across the season,” Stella said. “He approaches in a very controlled way. He is fast, but he tries to make sure that he doesn’t go too far in exploiting the car, just learns run by run. We see that this progression is always quite consistent, up to the point where it was a P2 in Qualifying, which is quite remarkable considering that Suzuka is an unforgiving track, you know, it’s an old school track, it’s narrow.”
It’s no surprise that McLaren has moved quickly to tie Piastri down until 2026, extending the Australian’s contract, having secured his services in the first place after a public, controversial tug-of-war with Alpine, where he had been a reserve driver.
But while McLaren has an excellent driver pairing — Verstappen called it the best on the grid — the dynamic within the team will make for interesting times. Piastri’s presence has already reduced some of Norris’ leverage, but the British driver is determined to maintain his superiority. Norris is naturally fast and has so far adapted better to a tricky McLaren car than his other teammates. But Piastri’s unflappable nature and will to improve have given him a new challenge.
“First win — earlier than mine…” Norris said of Piastri’s Qatar sprint victory, aware of the significance that it was his younger teammate who had got McLaren winning again. Norris, who will turn 24 next month, was long seen as the team’s big future hope, but his status could be usurped by Piastri. There’s still a large gulf in the standings — Norris is 53 points ahead of Piastri — but the gap on track is far narrower.
The Piastri-Norris dynamic
“Lando knows himself that Oscar is a unique talent,” said Stella. “He’s an absolute reference, even if he’s a rookie, and at times Lando knows that he will set the bar very high. But if you are a champion like Lando is, you will have to take that from a positive point of view because he gives you so much information to keep improving. Lando sees this as a bit of discomfort, but it’s the discomfort you need to become the best in a way.”
The five races remaining this season will offer a sense of what separates Norris and Piastri, and whether one, or both, could challenge Red Bull and Verstappen in 2024.
It’s certainly on Piastri’s agenda. He isn’t satisfied with merely turning heads in his rookie season. “It’s nice just to have that success… and in particular so early on in my F1 career,” he said. “A nice start, but of course, I want to be able to do more.”
Piastri still has room for improvement, not least in tyre management and race craft, which will come with experience. But he is determined to fast-track the learning, demanding the highest standards from himself and his team. “There’s a characteristic we like a lot; he’s a man of few words but the right words,” Stella said. “That’s become very apparent.”