Bitten by F1's Piranha Club: How Alpine was outplayed in Piastri saga


The Oscar Piastri saga is set to run and run, but the story so far has been incredible – Adam Cooper explains how the F1 'Piranha Club's' main players wrongfooted Alpine


Briatore has been key in the movements which have triggered the Piastri wrangle

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Even by the usual standards of Formula 1’s “Piranha Club” the scenario that has unfolded at Alpine over the past couple of days has been extraordinary, and it is far from over yet.

The bottom line is that the team and its top bosses have seemingly been outplayed by two drivers and their managements, and whatever the legal niceties buried in contracts there appears to have been some questionable behaviour somewhere along the line.

There are so many levels to all of this, with Flavio Briatore getting “revenge” on Alpine and the Renault Group, Fernando Alonso making his point after feeling undervalued, Lawrence Stroll making life difficult for his former team principal Otmar Szafnauer, McLaren destabilising its closest on-track rival by stealing the sport’s next megastar, and so on. It’s all great material for the next series of Drive to Survive, of course…


Alpine’s original 2023 plan

The basic facts are that until Monday morning Alpine thought it had three drivers and two seats.

Esteban Ocon was contracted for three firm years into 2023, as a French driver in a French-owned team, his place was always secure. However Alonso’s two-year deal was coming to an end, and the Spaniard had shown no signs of losing motivation on or off the track, and was thus determined to continue with at least two years added to his deal.


Promise of longer contract, increased and brand association saw Alonso switch to Aston

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In the background there was Oscar Piastri, the team’s talented 21-year-old protégé. The Australian had risen through the ranks at great speed, winning the FIA F3 title at his first attempt in 2020, before doing the same in F2 in 2021.

As such he’d arrived at the door of Grand Prix racing at the end of last year earlier than expected, with the team perhaps anticipating that he might spend at least two seasons in F2.

As he won the title first time out there was no choice but to leave him on the sidelines as F1 reserve in 2022, while also funding an expensive testing programme in last year’s car.

“Piastri and his manager Mark Webber were not satisfied with the idea of being parked at Williams by Alpine”

So what then of next year? Alpine’s original plan was to keep Alonso for 2023, with options open for 2024, including shifting him sideways into its WEC programme.

The idea was to place Piastri with Williams next year – a strategy that worked pretty well for Mercedes and George Russell, who ended up doing a three-year apprenticeship at Grove. A future Williams/Renault PU deal was said to be part of the arrangement.

The problem was that Piastri and his manager Mark Webber were not satisfied with the idea of being parked at Williams by Alpine, and at some stage they began their own negotiations with McLaren – on the basis that Piastri would be a free agent and not tied to Alpine in any way.

It’s understood that the snub has not gone down well with Williams and its boss Jost Capito.

Meanwhile Alonso’s negotiations with Alpine continued. He and his manager Flavio Briatore wanted more than one guaranteed extra season, and were not impressed with being in effect a stop-gap until Piastri could be welcomed back.

And while a WEC future interested him he wanted that to happen on his terms and when he was done with F1, not be dictated as part of Alpine’s global PR strategy.


Stroll “always gets his man”

Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

Alonso also wanted far more money than the team was prepared to give him. Indeed one source has told me that he might have been offered less than Ocon will earn in 2023 in the third season of a contract that sees a dramatic escalation in the Frenchman’s salary.

Alpine appeared to hold all the cards, and one could surmise that the Alonso and Piastri camps were being played off one against the other.


Vettel’s game-changing retirement announcement

It changed when Sebastian Vettel told Aston Martin last Wednesday that he would be retiring. It was a not entirely unexpected development, and we can assume that there was some prior contact between the Alonso camp and Lawrence Stroll that then became more serious over the Hungarian GP.

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Stroll always gets his man, and Alonso was offered a firm multi-year deal and far more money than he would get staying at Alpine. Aston is also a pretty good brand for Alonso to associate himself with for the longer term, notwithstanding its current financial issues.

The relative competitiveness of the two cars over the next two seasons is another question, and one that no one can yet answer. Alpine is still a works team, with all that entails. However given the money Stroll has spent in hiring big technical names and building a new factory, Aston should be on an upward trajectory.

Alonso was clearly a free agent at the end of this year, and as such perfectly entitled to take whatever deal was best for him and play one team against the other.

However, he seems to have been less than open with his current employers, leading them to believe on Sunday night in Hungary that an extension of his deal was still on. Then at 8am UK time on Monday came the press release from Aston Martin – he’s ours.

“We were in discussions with Fernando for quite some time,” team boss Otmar Szafnauer said on Tuesday. “And we were very, very close to finalising the agreement. There were just a couple of minor points that were outstanding, that he said that his lawyer would get back to us on.


Alpine has put huge investment into Piastri’s F1 education

Clive Mason/Getty Images

“And I believed that to be the case. And then before he left, I confirmed with him that we would be signing soon. And he said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry, I haven’t signed with anybody else. We’ll continue this in the next couple of days.’

“But the next morning, I saw the release from Aston. We were very, very close. We had what I thought was a fair contract on both sides, and Fernando did too. But it looks like he decided to do something else thereafter…”


Piastri’s ‘betrayal’

At first glance it seemed that Alonso’s jump had solved Alpine’s three-into-two scenario. Piastri would slot straight into the seat, and at a much lower cost.

And there would be no awkward situation at the end of 2023 sorting out Alonso’s future in order to get Piastri back from Williams, and potentially being seen by the Spanish public to retire him from F1 and send him to WEC. Job done, everyone happy.


Webber and Piastri had their heads turned by a potential McLaren move, and have tried to engineer a deal

Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images

Alpine meanwhile remained convinced that he was still contractually obliged to take the seat, especially as it was with Alpine itself, and not a loan deal to Williams.

However, it is believed that July 31, or Sunday night, was a key date in the contract, and that possibly Alpine didn’t exercise an option in time or tick the right boxes, leaving Piastri free to walk.

It was the next morning that the Alonso deal was announced and Alpine realised that it had a seat for Piastri after all.

Was the timing all neatly co-ordinated by Alonso and his old pal Webber, with Briatore – the man who made both men’s careers let’s not forget – pulling the strings? If so Alpine’s efforts to play one against the other backfired spectacularly…

Szafnauer and his colleagues were already aware that Piastri and Webber were intent on going to McLaren instead of taking the Williams option. The question was would they now accept the Alpine seat and drop those McLaren plans? Certainly, the team remained convinced that Piastri was obliged to do so.

Over Monday and Tuesday it became clear to Alpine that Piastri had no intention of driving for them. Convinced of its legal situation the team thus played its first legal chess move by putting out a press release confirming that Piastri will drive in 2023.

The big giveaway was a lack of Piastri quote saying “I’m delighted to be racing for Alpine next year” and all the usual PR guff. Instead just a few hours later he took to social media saying that the press release had come out without his knowledge, and that he wouldn’t be driving for Alpine after all.

We may ultimately discover that in pure legal terms, Piastri was in the right. The bigger picture is the question of respect and honourable behaviour and so on, if such things still have a place in the sport.


Alpine is now in a fight to fill its seat with the driver it wants


There are always two sides of course, but the fact is that the team had put a huge effort into building up Piastri, had spent a lot of money on his test programme, and had guaranteed him at least a Williams drive. Circumstances saw that morph that into an actual Alpine seat. Most would see that as a pretty good outcome, but that doesn’t seem to have been enough for Piastri and Webber.

Had they been heading to Ferrari, Red Bull or Mercedes, one could understand their logic a bit better.

However with due respect to McLaren the Woking team is still in the second group, and it seems unlikely to be a significantly better bet than Alpine over the next couple of years. Piastri will also be jumping in next to Lando Norris, who will be in his fifth year in the team, so he faces a tough test. It may well prove to be the making of him as the next Hamilton or Verstappen.

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Of course, McLaren can’t be blamed for doing whatever it takes to get someone of such obvious potential, just as 31 years ago Benetton, Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw jumped on Michael Schumacher.

The other side of the story is that teams and manufacturers invest in young drivers on the way up so they get the reward of placing them in their line-ups without having to go out onto the market and fight other teams for the established names.

Alpine has seemingly been dumped on from a great height, and the top Renault management will be furious. Why would they bother backing young drivers in the future if that sort of thing is going to happen?

“Oscar’s done over 3500 kilometres of last year’s car already,” said Szafnauer. “He’ll do at least another 1500. And he’ll also do some FP1s for us. And that’s a significant amount of investment.

“It’s more than just the financial investment, it’s also an emotional one, and getting him ready for what we hope is a successful F1 career. It’s not every F1 team that does that for an academy driver that’s come through, but we’ve chosen to do that to get him ready.

“And we’ve only done that with a view of having him race here in the future. We wouldn’t have done that if the view was to get him prepared for one of our competitors…”

Daniel Ricciardo portrait

Ricciardo may make switch back to Enstone

Steve Wobser/Getty Images

In theory Piastri still has more private tests to undertake, plus a couple of FP1 sessions. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

It’s seems inevitable that a legal tussle will now unfold. Whether that is confined to F1’s Contract Recognition Board in Geneva, or spills over into the civil courts, remains to be seen.

McLaren meanwhile faces the challenge of off-loading Daniel Ricciardo. The assumption is that he has a solid contract for 2023 that favours his side, and that he would have to be paid a lot of money to not drive for the team.

Alpine presents an obvious opportunity for him to land on his feet, and perhaps now it’s a question of whether he jumps first or is pushed, at least in terms of McLaren’s financial commitment.

When Kimi Räikkönen landed a huge pay-off to leave Ferrari at the end of 2009 he knew he would have had to give it back if he drove for another F1 team, hence his diversion to the WRC.

In other words having nicked Piastri McLaren seems to be in the unusual position of now relying on Alpine taking Ricciardo in order to ease his departure and minimise any compensation paid. How bizarre…

Ricciardo going back to Enstone is a nice fit, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. There are two issues. Firstly he’s struggled for form since being up against Norris – will Alpine believe that he can get his head together alongside Ocon?

Secondly, he was headhunted from RBR by Renault amid great fanfare and at huge expense to be the long-term future of the team.

However in early 2020 and in only his second year he accepted a big bucks offer to go to McLaren for 2021. That didn’t go down well in the Renault camp, and while former team principal Cyril Abiteboul is long gone, it’s understood that top boss Luca de Meo was unimpressed, and thus may need some persuading to take him back.

Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer

Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer has seen an chain unfortunate chain of events for his current team initiated by his former in Aston

Ricciardo aside, it’s a short list of potential candidates. Some believe that Alex Albon could yet walk away from Williams, although Capito has indicated that he is staying. Mick Schumacher is looking for a seat, and Nyck de Vries is floating around. Pierre Gasly is confirmed at AlphaTauri, but there’s always a chance that it might suit Red Bull to let him go and create a vacancy – possibly for Porsche-favoured Schumacher.

Sauber protégé Theo Pourchaire is an outside bet, should Renault agree that the French youngster is the solution, and sources suggest that the team might release him without strings attached.

It will be fascinating to see what the next chess move in this complex game will be…