Failing to make it out of the first stage in qualifying and retiring from the race only 12 laps in was hardly the glittering Formula 1 debut Oscar Piastri would have anticipated since it was confirmed he would be on the 2023 grid midway through last year.
But a deeper delve below the surface and the reaction emanating from people close to the McLaren and Piastri camps detail the promising basepoint the Australian has to build from for the coming races.
McLaren had entered the 2023 campaign openly expecting to struggle for pace in the opening rounds after an internal decision to switch its development focus during through the winter. Subsequently, the opening few rounds were identified as challenging ones, with the introduction of a vast upgrade package for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix pinpointed as the real start of its season.
Piastri’s best qualifying time of 1:32.101s left him down in 18th place and in the ballpark area of where McLaren relatively expected to be in Bahrain. The problem for Piastri, however, was that McLaren’s MCL60 car was faring better than the team anticipated. Norris recorded an effort almost five-tenths faster than his rookie team-mate and progressed into the second segment, eventually winding up an encouraging 11th.
Understandably, Piastri was downbeat on Saturday evening: “It wasn’t the greatest of qualifying sessions. I just made too many mistakes.” An honest, mature assessment from the newcomer but a realistic standpoint, too.
Without a snap coming out of Turn 2, which by McLaren team principal Andrea Stella’s estimations was worth “two to three tenths”, Piastri would have been much closer to his team-mate.
Although it was unrepresentative conditions and meant little in the grand scheme of things for the weekend ahead, Piastri set the eighth quickest time in FP3. That alone suggested that the underlying speed is there for Piastri when he can string it all together. Unfortunately for the new McLaren driver, he was unable to translate that turn of speed across into qualifying.
But mistakes are part and parcel for a driver commencing their F1 career – especially in the fast and furious spectacle of qualifying. Even more so when it’s factored in that Piastri’s last competitive outing came at the final round of the Formula 2 championship at the end of 2021.
The effects of such a prolonged period away from racing action were sure to be accentuated even more in the environment of the hustle and bustle that usually occurs down at the first corner. Starting within the pack, it would have been increasingly easy for Piastri to lock a brake or end up on the wrong side of being either too aggressive or too cautious in his approach.
However, Piastri was exemplary and displayed no signs of racing rust. After making up a handful of places already at the start, he then pulled a move on Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas to move up to P13 before his race was curtailed by an electrical problem that brought a premature end to what was developing into a tidy debut.
With Norris’ Sunday also being hampered by reliability trouble, McLaren went home empty-handed. But the team believe that points with both cars were a realistic expectation, providing a promising sign that the revised package could make the MCL60 a consistent top 10 contender.
A more competitive car will unquestionably aid Piastri’s adaptation to F1, but it will also serve to ramp up the fierce scrutiny already resting on his shoulders. Piastri has entered the top tier as arguably the driver with the most pressure to deliver since Max Verstappen entered at 17 years old in 2015.
Such a burden of expectation arrived as a consequence of his contentious switch from Alpine to McLaren last summer, when the Australian rejected his parent team’s admission he would be driving for them to negotiate a deal elsewhere. Such a high-profile saga story concerning a driver yet to make his F1 debut understandably yielded scepticism from several quarters.
The reservations held over Piastri’s demeanour in turning his back on the entity that had funded his entire junior career were amplified by Alpine’s top brass launching a sequence of personal attacks.
The relentless way in which the Enstone outfit continuously attempted to deride Piastri’s name by criticising him for a failure to show any loyalty was, quite frankly, farcical and reminiscent of a toddler throwing its toys out of a pram when it hasn’t received its way.
Add into the mix replacing one of the sport’s universally most popular drivers in Ricciardo and it all concocted into a cauldron of expectation that Piastri has been contending with all the way through his pre-season preparations. Having the spotlight shone intensely on his every move likely won’t be going away any time soon.
The Melbourne-born racer has countered by insisting that he has moved on. Ultimately, though, he has every reason to. Piastri wasn’t responsible for Alpine mismanaging its drivers and it was a testament to his talent that he had two top midfield-operating outfits in F1 clamouring for his signature, despite only turning the wheel of an F1 car sporadically in testing terms to that point.
There is much to be excited about with Piastri. He is the only driver other than Charles Leclerc and George Russell to win the Formula 3 and Formula 2 categories proceeding F1 consecutively as a rookie in both series. Those two drivers have since gone on to impress enough to be placed at Ferrari and Mercedes respectively, with both achieving their maiden F1 victories in the season of their promotion to two of the biggest teams in the sport.
Piastri is unquestionably at that calibre based on the achievements he can be ranked on. While the detractors would have taken great delight in witnessing him fare no better than the driver he replaced or his ex-Alpine team, Piastri had a quietly solid debut weekend all things considered.
Despite his starring junior record, nobody is rightfully expecting Piastri to immediately be on the pace of an established name like Norris. His current McLaren team-mate has garnered a reputation for himself as one of the best drivers on the current grid, with the Brit retaining the devilish combination of being both ridiculously fast and consistent throughout a campaign.
Piastri’s gateway into a McLaren seat came about because of the manner in which Norris obliterated Ricciardo in their two seasons partnered together.
Last season Norris astonishingly accumulated 85 more points than his former team-mate in midfield machinery and he was only out-qualified by Ricciardo twice across 21 rounds. The highest compliment that can be paid to Norris is that it swiftly became an expectancy that he would thrash a nine-time F1 race winner weekly.
Such a benchmark was always going to be tough for Piastri to match up against in his rookie season. But providing he gets closer to Norris than Ricciardo did it would represent an overall good campaign for Piastri, and more than enough for him to build upon for his sophomore campaign in 2024 when he will be more adjusted to the plethora of challenges that derive from being a fully-fledged F1 driver.
Equally as important as being fast when arriving into a new team is integrating into the environment smoothly and McLaren’s management was hugely impressed by Piastri in that regard. Stella is insistent that the results marked against Piastri’s name from Bahrain didn’t necessarily reflect how well he had acquitted himself with the team.
“I’m impressed with the speed, but I’m also impressed with the approach,” the McLaren team boss said. “He has gone really step by step, staying always very calm, very aware of his points of strength and to some extent limitations associated with being a rookie.
“So it’s just a shame that this is not reflected in the classification. But actually, I think Oscar has done very well so far,” he added.
Making a positive impression internally is an assured sign for the future and an element that McLaren could never fault with Ricciardo. The determining factor in Piastri not succumbing to the same downfall as his countryman, however, will lie in eradicating the tiny errors that were prevalent on the track throughout the Bahrain weekend.
But that is something that will surely be gradually phased out as he accumulates more experience. Leclerc has proven to be arguably the fastest driver currently in F1 and he didn’t make a seamless transition immediately after his promotion to the highest echelon of single-seater racing.
The opening exchanges will all form part of a steep learning curve for Piastri as he acclimatises to the competitive demands of F1. Nevertheless, the Australian racer will undoubtedly have a big part to play in McLaren turning around its fortunes long-term if he can realise his potential.
Piastri will hope for more memorable weekends than Bahrain to come, but, as debut outings go, it was a promising step in the right direction for one of the sport’s next generation of stars.
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