Why McLaren already tips Oscar Piastri to be one of F1's best, despite disastrous debut


Oscar Piastri started 18th on the grid in his debut F1 race and retired with an electrical issue 13 laps later. But he's already shown the qualities that can make him a championship contender, McLaren believes

Oscar Piastri looks out from cockpit of 2023 F1 McLaren

You only get one chance to make a first impression. For an F1 driver a strong debut race can really help to kickstart your career and give people something to talk about, sometimes for years to come.

At the very least it can buy you a honeymoon period and help you through the inevitable lows of any mishaps that might occur over your rookie season.

On the face of it Oscar Piastri’s first outing with McLaren in Bahrain didn’t exactly go to plan. He was only 18th in Q1, almost half a second off team-mate Lando Norris in that session. In the race he gained a couple of places at the start before an electrical issue led to a pitstop and retirement after an unlucky 13 laps.

McLaren of Oscar Piastri sits in the pit garage after retiring from the 2023 Bahrain GP

Piastri’s McLaren sits in the pits as Bahrain GP goes on

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

It was not what he needed for his first competitive outing since the Abu Dhabi F2 event some 16 months earlier, when he really needed to log a race distance. However he tried to see the positives.

“A short debut but it was still nice to get back out there, do a first lap and be in a racing environment again,” he said.

“I think we were having a pretty reasonable race up until that point. A shame, but nice to do the laps that I did anyway. At the beginning, I was struggling a little bit to stay with the DRS train. A bit later in the stint we were pretty good on tyres, I think better than some of the cars around us. We were getting there. Also, for me, just being in a race environment, the dirty air again, and all that stuff. It’s been a while since I’ve had to experience that.

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“Before I came to the pits, I did basically half a lap crawling around, so I knew it was going be a pretty lonely race after that anyways. We thought it might be the steering wheel, but that was changed, and it didn’t fix anything. A bit of a shame — it felt like it was going reasonably well.”

One of the positive signs was the improvement he showed through testing and into the race, although mistakes in Q1 – which to his credit he was keen to own up to – proved to be costly.

Neither McLaren driver was helped by the fact that they had to abort their first runs for the red flag to recover bodywork that had fallen off Charles Leclerc‘s Ferrari. This compromised them when they had another go on the same tyres.

“I think for me, personally it wasn’t the greatest of qualifying sessions, I just made too many mistakes,” he said. “The first set of tyres with the red flag, maybe we could have done something different, because the first one was not great on a set of colder tyres. I think regardless of that, the second one, I made too many mistakes.

“The corners where there were no mistakes were competitive. Everyone is so tight now that any little mistake, let alone some of the big ones that I had, costs you a lot. So I think a lot more to come from myself.”

“It’s a big step up from F2. I was just getting used to it really, when I stopped”

That frank assessment of his own performance was intriguing to hear. As for the race, Piastri has done a lot of testing with Alpine and latterly McLaren, but there’s no substitute for actual racing, and getting your elbows out.

“It’s a big step up from F2,” he admitted. “And even that was over a year ago now. So a lot of learning still. So there’s still definitely some stuff I can learn and take away from the brief race that I had.

“And I think I was just getting used to it really, when I stopped. So yeah, I think it’s nice to have that part in the bank.

“It’s been good, I’ve loved it. Especially compared to watching from the sidelines last year, anything is better than that. I’m getting there I feel like in terms of my comfort in the car and stuff like that. Just need to do some more laps.”

Oscar Piastri ahead of Zhou Guanyu in the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Piastri’s F1 debut only lasted 13 laps

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Piastri has had the misfortune to arrive at McLaren when the team is at its lowest ebb for some time, rather than pushing on and mixing with the established top three, as Aston Martin has done so successfully. Even Norris only just made it out of Q1.

The team remains adamant that after the first three races the new aero package will allow us to see the definitive MCL60, and hopefully then Piastri will have more a chance to show what he can do.

However what was clear from Bahrain was that he has already convinced the team of his potential, even with the car he has.

“What impresses us is his awareness of his opportunities while driving,” said team boss Andrea Stella. “He could come back and make comments like, ‘I think I braked a little too early in corner one, I didn’t go on throttle early enough in four.’

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“And then you look at the data, and it is exactly it. So his awareness of the performance opportunities, that’s the first point. And then he goes out for the second run, and he cashes in these opportunities.

“For me, this is a definition of talent. We see a lot of it. And we are also pleased with the improvement we have seen it day-by-day over the test.

“I think in terms of the opportunity, overall, F1 is a very, very competitive game, so he just has to go through his own trajectory. And I’m sure the final destination will be as one of the best drivers on the grid.”

That’s a pretty good endorsement from a man who over the years has worked closely with the likes of world champions Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.

McLaren technical director James Key echoed Stella’s sentiments, especially regarding the quality of Piastri’s feedback.

“He’s impressed us tremendously actually,” he noted. “I’ve worked with a lot of rookies in my time, and there’s a real range of talents and attributes which each of them brings.

“Some are mentally just naturally quick, but they’re not so good with their feedback. Some have both, some have excellent feedback, but need to do a bit of work on track and so on. Oscar’s technical knowledge is excellent, his feel for the car is incredibly precise. He mirrors much of how Lando talks about the car.

“So that’s really good for us. It’s not as though you have a rookie driver in many respects, talking about the car, because his feeling is extremely precise.

“And that’s allowed us to pin down very early in winter testing exactly what we need to do for the further generation development work, to back up some of the comments we’ve had.

“He’s very much a team player, he speaks very openly about his thoughts. And is very inclusive with that. So we’ve been really impressed. I think ‘mature beyond his years’ is maybe overused, but definitely that’s the case with Oscar.”

Oscar Piastri talks to team member from cockpit of 2023 McLaren F1 car

Piastri’s feedback has already impressed McLaren

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

It will be interesting to follow Piastri’s progress over the next run of races. They will be a tough test for all three of the 2023 rookies, with Jeddah followed by Melbourne, Baku and Miami – a series of temporary tracks where a small mistake can have big consequences.

The second of that run is also Piastri’s home race, where he takes over Daniel Ricciardo’s mantle of local hero and will be in the media spotlight throughout the weekend. His manager Mark Webber knows exactly what it’s like, and will be able to help steer him through it.

Piastri exudes a quiet confidence, as the great drivers often do at his age, and so far, it looks like he’s taking it all in his stride.

“I’m taking it more or less as I would any other normal race weekend,” he said in Bahrain. “I don’t feel like sort of any extra something because it’s F1 now, I’m here to do the same job, I’m here to try and get the most out of myself and out of the car, which is the same in everything I’ve raced previously.

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“So from that side of things, I think it’s the same obviously. When I’m out of the car, being in this paddock, especially after watching everyone do it last year, I’ve got a new appreciation for it now and just very thankful to be able to do this now.

“But in terms of how I’m going about it, session-to-session, day-to-day, it’s still very similar to how I’ve approached my racing previously.”

There’s no substitute for mileage: “I think it’s maybe a different driving style to what I’ve had in junior categories. But I think in saying that all the junior cars had their own pretty big differences.

“So it’s just something new to adapt to. I think I would agree that it does take some getting used to, but I feel like I’ve adapted to that part well, it’s now just perfecting it and really extracting the limit of everything.”

That limit isn’t where it should be with the current MCL60 package, but Piastri knows that the team will make steps in the coming weeks.

“I think there’s some things I wish I could do, that I can’t do. But I think everyone is saying the same, if everyone had a perfect car, I think they’d be going a lot quicker than everyone on the grid.

“Everyone’s going to have their limitations. It’s just trying to address them as best as we can. And ultimately, whatever is going to give us lap time, is what we need.”