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Oscar Piastri - Australia's newest Challenger.

Schumacher, Senna, Vettel, Hamilton, Prost, Lauda. These are legends that have shaped the sport that we love. All of these legends started off as rookies (obviously) but what stood them apart from other rookies is they took on the best of the business during their times and impressed over them.

Vettel in his debut season secured one of the most iconic first wins of a minor racing team Toro Rosso in rain-soaked Monza. Hamilton had arguably the best rookie season ever managing to fight for the World driver championship until the last race of the season in 2008 which he lost in a heartbreaking fashion. Senna in his debut season in F1 for Toleman showcased early his mastery of Monaco by securing a brilliant P2 nearly catching Prost in the rain soaked streets of Monte Carlo.

The driver who I looked forward to this season is Oscar Piastri. The man has an impressive track record on his road to Formula One  placing second in British F4 and then winning the Formula Renault, Formula 3 and Formula 2 championships all in a row from 2019-21. The whole F1 paddock and many fans(myself included) agreed that it was a big miss that he did not get a spot in the 2022 World Championship as most of the teams and drivers rated him as a highly talented and competitive racer. His manager, one of Australia’s best ever racing drivers and a familiar name in the Formula One circuit, Mark Webber said, “We see what we missed. To have a guy like that not racing was a travesty and was killing me inside.” However he soon became the Centre of a big contract dispute between Alpine and McLaren. Alpine were in trouble as their star man Alonso suddenly announced a shock move to mid-table side Aston Martin to replace the retiring legend Sebastian Vettel for 2023. They announced that Piastri would race for them in 2023. Key thing to note was there were no statements from Oscar in the press release that they issued.

This then led to an iconic tweet by Piastri that he was not going to race for them.

The team principal of Alpine at the time, Otmar Szafnauer blasted Piastri’s actions and questioned his integrity. However Piastri himself stated there was a breakdown in trust between both camps.

Eventually the FIA'S Contract Recognition Board ruled against Alpine and Piastri was announced at McLaren and it was revealed that he had signed as a reserve first but was upgraded to the starting role.

McLaren had an underwhelming 2022 to say the least as they didn’t really optimise on the 2 consecutive top 4 finishes in the constructors championships and ultimately decided to part ways with the Honey Badger Daniel Ricciardo in favour of Piastri and this decision had been decided upon by the Belgian GP. Many wondered if this was the right call.

McLaren had a rocky start as Piastri and their young star Lando Norris both suffered car issues and didn't score points in the first two races. Piastri himself was running high as 8th and doing a decent job until he failed to restart his car after a steering wheel change. In a chaotic home race at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, Piastri secured his first points finish of P8. Things were still a bit rough as he was not able to score points consistently but his talent was noticeable as he was finding himself fighting for points and being in good positions but in the end strategy calls and weaknesses in the car prevented him from converting. Things however started to turn around for both Piastri and the Woking squad.

At the British Grand Prix with new upgrades, Piastri managed to qualify a personal best P3 behind Lando. Piastri even had a fantastic race managing to stay P3 until he pitted and was hampered by the safety car for Magnussen’s retirement, which meant he dropped to P4 behind Hamilton and finished there only being less than a second behind. It was a highly impressive performance and one that marked Piastri as a force to be reckoned with. He continued this form to Hungary finishing a strong P5 after starting P4.

At Belgium he showcased remarkable skill and composure in alternating wet and dry conditions to qualify P2 in the sprint and P6 in the main race qualifying. In the sprint race a brainwave from the McLaren team to start Piastri on the intermediates led to the young Aussie to lead a race for the first time until another safety car bunched the group together, which meant Piastri got overtaken by Verstappen for the lead. He came across for his first top 3 finish in P2 in the sprint. In the main race however, a collision with Sainz at La Source meant he would not complete the race.

Piastri really started to gain plaudits from fans and pundits alike. Piastri continued to grow into the season and got a P7 finish at Singapore starting from P17. McLaren even rewarded Piastri with a contract extension till 2026 for his really strong first half of the 2023 season.

Just days later Piastri blew away everyone with a stunning P2 in qualifying in the Japanese Grand Prix ahead of teammate Norris and behind Max. What made it even more special was it was his first ever time on the Suzuka Grand Prix circuit.

Suzuka is known to be one of the most challenging circuits which drivers love, offering  fast, medium and low speed technical corners, a figure-of-eight track layout and long straights as well as the iconic 130r corner. It has one of the toughest first sectors in the F1 calendar with varying wind conditions and alternating conditions which meant high tyre demands and multiple strategy changes. Piastri managed to drive with a high consistency and maturity and finished the race P3 securing his first ever Formula One podium.

At the next race Qatar he did qualify P3 on track but the laptimes got deleted for track limits and dropped him to P6. This did not deter the quick Aussie and in the sprint shootout qualified P1 and converted that into a successful sprint victory securing his first ever P1 in a F1 Sprint.

To top it off he managed to secure a tremendous P2 in the main race on Sunday on a day where the intense heat and difficult weather made the proceedings incredibly difficult for drivers as they suffered flu like symptoms with one of the drivers Ocon even vomiting inside of his helmet during the race and some drivers struggling to get out of their cars at the end of the race.

Piastri did suffer a retirement at the next race but still secured a few more points finishes in the final races and ended his strong rookie campaign finishing P9 in the drivers standings with 97 points.

A very worthy win as Rookie of the Year, this was one of the most impressive rookie performances I have seen in a long while. Initially the season was rough but he really grew into the season and stood out on multiple occasions including beating his teammate Lando, who himself is a stellar driver and regarded to be a future World Champion.

Having both Piastri and Lando means McLaren have now got a strong duo that could spearhead them towards the top end of the constructors championship and possibly a very entertaining battle between two exciting talents.

Piastri himself is a really likeable person who’s looked calm and assured and looked like a natural on the track and he backed this up with bags of talent and quick pace especially with really strong qualifying sessions and a racecraft that continued to improve as the season went on. It's very difficult for drivers to secure points consistently and not only did he manage to do that he managed to secure podiums and even a fantastic Sprint race win.

The benefit for both Piastri and McLaren is that they managed to develop together and consistently were on the up and it felt like Piastri did get himself integrated rather well with the McLaren project. Therefore all the noise surrounding his contract talks were really justified as he delivered and then some. Piastri was a confident driver with a really good floor and a high technical ceiling and was consistently strong in his consecutive streak of championship wins in the junior formulas and what impressed me has to be the professionalism with which he conducted himself throughout the entire season showcasing maturity and patience of a seasoned driver that made his transition into the big league a good one.

This is even more impressive when you look at the fact that Piastri did not take part in a single race in 2022 or prior to the 2023 season. There certainly are elements in Piastri’s wheelhouse that he needs to improve, primary one being his race pace and racecraft but he improved as the season went on. In fact it makes me more confident about Piastri growing more and more into his career with McLaren.

Piastri definitely has the makings of forging a very successful career in this sport and continue developing the legacy of the great Australian drivers that graced the sport such as the likes of Jack Brabham and his own manager Mark Webber. Mark has been really impressed by the rookie sensation but also has stated that there is still more work to be done in his progression but he was really proud of the 22 year old from Melbourne.

As we move into 2024, McLaren as a team are definitely improving and getting better, managing to recover strongly from the hiccups and troubles of 2022 and early 2023 and maybe finally returning to the top step of Formula One. And one thing is certain. Oscar Piastri will continue to grow and cement himself as one of the best drivers in the scene and become one of Australia’s finest racing drivers in the sport.

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