Oscar Piastri says having Max Verstappen in the mirrors “doesn’t put your nerves at ease” after leading his first laps in Formula 1 in the Belgian Grand Prix Sprint Race.
The Australian wound up second in Saturday morning’s Sprint Shootout, only 0.011s adrift of Verstappen’s pole position time.
With a heavy downpour delaying the start and then forcing five laps behind the Safety Car, Piastri was the first driver among many to immediately pit for Intermediates when the racing finally got underway.
Piastri produced a flying out-lap to leap ahead of Verstappen when the Red Bull driver came in the next time around and remained ahead as the Safety Car made another appearance to clear away the stricken Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso.
Although Verstappen blasted past the McLaren down the Kemmel Straight upon the restart, Piastri managed to retain second to secure his first top-three finish in F1.
“Yeah it was a good Sprint,” Piastri reflected. I think it was pretty obvious for us to box on the first lap. Obviously we had the same risk as Max of potentially getting stuck with everyone coming in.
“But it worked out really well, and yeah, managed to lead a few laps which was cool. So yeah, really enjoyed it. I think we struggled a bit with keeping the tyres alive.
“Yeah. Apart from that, I think that was pretty much all we could have achieved today, so I’m really happy.
Piastri concedes that he didn’t expect to keep Verstappen at bay for long and admits that having the reigning World Champion directly behind him placed him under the most intense pressure possible.
“You’re always focusing on trying to do the best laps you can,” he said.
“But when you’ve got Max and his car behind you, it’s… it doesn’t put your nerves at ease, put it that way!
“I knew it was going to be difficult to hold him behind, of course. I probably wasn’t expecting him to catch me literally at the top of Eau Rouge off the Safety Car restart, but such is our straight-line speed.
“Yeah, it was cool, I was just trying to focus on doing the best job I could, knowing that it was probably going to be a when Max came past, rather than an if. I tried my best, and I think second was all we had.”
Asked if McLaren had planned for the eventuality of leading the field during a Safety Car restart, Piastri said: “We didn’t! I mean, I’ve done quite a few Safety Car restarts before, so yeah, it’s not nothing new.
“But of course you just try and do the best job you can in tricky conditions with quite low tire temps at that point. I tried the best that I could. I think I went a bit wide at Turn 1, which didn’t help things.
“But I don’t think it made much difference. It was nice to be able to control a Safety Car restart again, and hopefully there’s a few more opportunities in the future.”
McLaren’s fortunes have taken a considerable upturn since the Woking side introduced substantial upgrades on Lando Norris’ car in Austria earlier this month.
The British driver has claimed a podium at the past two races, while Piastri has registered fourth and fifth-place finishes to underline the extent of McLaren’s progress.
Having been classified inside the top three in both sessions on Sprint Saturday at Spa-Francorchamps, Piastri acknowledges that McLaren’s vast improvement has aided his progression in his rookie campaign.
“I feel like it’s going well,” he summarised. “I wouldn’t say it’s particularly linear in my development.
“I feel like Silverstone was the best weekend so far. I think Budapest, there were still a few things that I probably needed to learn and work on. I think here’s been obviously quite strong today, and yesterday, maybe there was a bit left on the table.
“It’s not always linear, I think in the conditions we’ve had this weekend, it’s so easy to want more and more and then you find yourself in the wall. So I’ve got to keep my expectations in check.
“I feel like in a general trend, it’s going in the right direction. I’m getting more and more comfortable with the car, because the car is much, much better now than it was at the start of the year which of course helps with the feeling of the car, but also knowing if you do a good job, you can fight for the top three, it helps. I feel like it’s in the right direction.
“There’ll be ups and downs for sure, but hopefully it’s more ups,” he added.