Why Piastri's attempt to join McLaren carries implications of risk

After the 2006 Formula 1 British GP, Lewis Hamilton's father Anthony was a frustrated man, despite his son - at the time a star in GP2 - having just scored a memorable double win in that weekend's feature and sprint events.

Why Piastri's attempt to join McLaren carries implications of risk

Anthony was sufficiently wound up about the situation at McLaren that he felt the need to express his thoughts to this writer.

The gist of it was that he and his son were frustrated by a lack of information from McLaren about the future. Naturally, Hamilton Sr felt that his son was more than ready for F1, and he wanted McLaren to promote him to a race seat. If they don't, Anthony suggested, we'll go somewhere else.

Just a few weeks later, McLaren announced that Hamilton was indeed going straight into an F1 seat for 2007, alongside Fernando Alonso.

Sixteen years on and history is repeating itself. Once again the man of the moment and his management appear to have become frustrated with the team that has been supporting his career. And oddly enough, Alonso and McLaren again figure in the story.

The big difference is that this time the young man in a hurry really has skipped off and left his mentors in the lurch, having determined that the grass is greener elsewhere.

The saga of Oscar Piastri and Alpine is far from over, and it remains to be seen how it plays out legally.

However, both parties have made their positions clear. Alpine is convinced that it has a contractual hold on the youngster for 2023, while Piastri and his management believe that they were free to sign for McLaren.

Oscar Piastri, Reserve Driver, Alpine F1 Team arrives into the paddock

Oscar Piastri, Reserve Driver, Alpine F1 Team arrives into the paddock

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

To recap, it was in January 2020 that Piastri was announced as a member of what was then the Renault Driver Academy. His signing was a result of his win in the Eurocup series, as the opportunity to be affiliated with the F1 team was one of the prizes, should the driver want it.

Mark Webber helped to seal the deal, but it was only several weeks later that the former Red Bull driver was publicly confirmed as Piastri's manager in a press release from his company, JAM Sports Management.

JAM is not a one-man band. Webber works with a team led by his wife Ann, who did so much to further his own career, and a CEO in the form of Aussie entrepreneur Jason Allen. JAM also looks after Formula E racer Mitch Evans, javelin world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber, and several rising stars from two-wheeled motorsport.

The company website notes that "our approach to business is based on simple core values; integrity, honesty, loyalty, respect, responsibility and commitment".

Through 2020 and 2021, Renault and then Alpine supported Piastri to his victories in the FIA F3 and F2 championships, successes that propelled him to the door of F1 perhaps quicker than anyone expected.

That created a problem. With Alonso and Esteban Ocon signed up for 2022 Alpine had no choice but to put Piastri on hold in a reserve driver role while preparing for F1 with private testing in an old car, the odd FP1 session, and endless sim running.

Problem two was always going to come in 2023. Ocon was still signed up, and it was obvious that Alonso fully intended to extend his stay.

That's why a few months ago Alpine began talking to Williams about a temporary loan deal, similar to the one that ultimately worked so well for George Russell and the Grove team.

Then at some stage in the last few weeks, McLaren came into the picture. Team principal Andreas Seidl worked closely with Webber in their Porsche WEC days, and they have remained close. In addition Piastri was named in March as a McLaren reserve driver, with Alpine's permission.

Thus it wasn't difficult for McLaren to ask Webber the simple question: Would Piastri come to us if we can offload Daniel Ricciardo?

Mark Webber and Oscar Piastri

Mark Webber and Oscar Piastri

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Inevitably, Webber and Piastri were interested, as McLaren would clearly be a step up from Williams. The big difference was that Zak Brown and his colleagues wanted to have full claim on the youngster and not leave Alpine with him "on a string" to be reeled back in 2024 or 2025.

Webber confirmed that in his view Piastri was indeed contractually able to sign for McLaren, without any Alpine ties.

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It was only after such a deal was agreed, initially for Piastri to take a 2023 reserve role pending a settlement with Ricciardo, that Alonso stunned Alpine by signing for Aston Martin – without even formally stopping talks about 2023 and beyond.

That meant his Alpine seat was suddenly available for Piastri. However, that ship had sailed…

By the time the saga unfolded at the start of last week, Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer and CEO Laurent Rossi were already well aware that Piastri had been romanced by McLaren. They soon played their legal hand by announcing that he would race for Alpine next year, knowing that the likely response would be 'No, I'm not', which is exactly what happened.

The McLaren camp insists that he's free of Alpine, and that the relevant bit of paper simply wasn't signed (there was no July 31st cut-off on an option, or anything like that).

The implication is that the Alpine management took its eye off the ball and misjudged the driver market, while not anticipating that Alonso and Piastri would both find other opportunities, and that the team would suddenly go from having three drivers in to just one.

Alpine sources refute that and suggest that the paperwork the team has ensures that it still has until December 31st to decide what to do with Piastri next year, whether that be to put him in the Alpine seat or place him at Williams. There is in turn an option for 2024 that runs until mid-September of '23.

Oscar Piastri, Reserve Driver, Alpine F1 Team

Oscar Piastri, Reserve Driver, Alpine F1 Team

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

Whatever the legal situation, have Webber and Piastri made the right call?

Naturally every driver wants to be in the best possible car as quickly as possible.

However, a year or even two alongside Alex Albon at Williams would have been a decent place to learn. Not going straight into a major team didn't do any harm for Russell, or indeed the likes of Alonso at Minardi, Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso, and Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc at Sauber, to name just a few.

As it turns out, Piastri is actually walking away not from Williams, but from the chance of starting his career at Alpine, a works manufacturer team, lest we forget.

Ocon has been there for a while and is well established, but Piastri himself has been in the camp for three years. He would have had the full support of a team that had invested in him, and would thus have given him time to find his feet and make the sort of mistakes that rookies usually have to go through and learn from.

At McLaren he'll be in an unfamiliar environment, and up against Lando Norris, Zak Brown's protege, who will be in his fifth year in the team. Norris is seriously good, and totally at home in the Woking camp, having come through the ranks as a McLaren junior.

Piastri, hugely talented as he obviously is, will be the outsider, the man who also has to justify to the world that he was worth offloading Ricciardo for. History may relate that he does just that, but it's a tough ask.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

There remains an obvious question: Will McLaren be more competitive than Alpine over the next three or four years? No one can answer that yet, and thus going to McLaren is a toss of a coin in some ways.

It's inevitable that the dispute will now progress to the Contract Recognition Board, the body that F1 teams agreed many years ago would make judgements on such matters.

It may well turn out that Piastri and Webber prove to be in the right on a legal technicality, and that Alpine did indeed overlook something, or forget to tick a box, allowing the younger Aussie to escape any commitments. You could argue that it was a typical piece of F1 sharp practice - the Piranha Club in action.

However, Alpine has made clear that there's something here that goes beyond any legal jargon buried in a contract, and that's loyalty and the other core values highlighted by JAM's own website.

Sometimes young drivers tied to F1 teams can find themselves at a dead end, and you can't blame them for wanting to break free.

However, Renault/Alpine had a genuine intention to bring Piastri from Formula Renault to F1, and the team did everything possible to make that happen, notwithstanding the Alonso/Ocon log jam that looked set to oblige him to undertake his F1 apprenticeship at Williams.

Consider what Alpine has put into Piastri's career just in 2022. Thus far he's undertaken some 3500kms of a planned total of 5000kms of private testing, including a run in the RS18 at Paul Ricard in February, followed by sessions in the A521 at COTA, Doha, the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone and Monza.

Two FP1 outings were planned to take place at some point after the summer break.

The team has spent millions of dollars providing that testing and readying him to arrive in F1 as prepared as he could possibly be.

And in return Piastri and Webber appear to have waved the proverbial middle finger at Alpine and headed off into the Woking sunset.

In so doing they have angered not only Alpine and the wider Renault Group, but also Williams, snubbed in favour of McLaren.

Piastri may well turn out to be so good and in such demand that McLaren will soon be fighting off the advances of the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and even Red Bull, and thus he won't have to worry about having alienated teams lower down the grid.

Oscar Piastri, Alpine

Oscar Piastri, Alpine

Photo by: Alpine

However, F1 is a small world. You never know when Piastri might need a favour further down the line. You could also speculate that the next time Webber has a young driver in tow he might not find it quite so easy to drum up support.

The bigger picture is what this case could mean for junior programmes across motorsport. A company like Renault, with board members and shareholders to answer to, may think twice the next time it's asked by its F1 team to back a young driver.

Why invest millions if the guy can skip out so easily?

There remains a strong possibility that Alpine's next step could go beyond the CRB and into the civil courts, should the team decide that it wants to recover what it has spent on readying Piastri for F1. 

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