McLaren’s resurgence continued at the Japanese Grand Prix as the team secured its first double podium in two years – but for Oscar Piastri, the route to claiming his first trophy in Formula 1 exposed the magnitude of the challenge he has against team-mate Lando Norris.
After a multitude of rookie drivers had passed through in previous years without truly stamping their authority on the top flight, Piastri has delivered on the lofty expectations that placed him as the centrepiece of last year’s driver market.
Eventually, McLaren won out over Alpine in a protracted legal battle, locking down arguably the most exciting and talented driver line-up on the entire F1 grid.
But McLaren’s attempts to provide its revitalised youthful combination with a competitive machine from the outset were stymied by the admission it had missed development targets with its MCL60 car. Instead of building upon the progress it had made last year following a stuttering start to the latest regulation cycle, the Woking camp plummeted to backmarker territory.
A pitiful total of only 17 points were scored across the opening eight races, but the introduction of a heavily revised car from the Austrian Grand Prix – extensively remodelling the sidepods, floor and engine cover – transformed the team’s fortunes and propelled it into front-running contention.
Norris had already utilised the changes to register a triumvirate of second-place finishes ahead of the Japanese GP, while Piastri had converted second place on Sprint Saturday in Belgium. The Australian had been unfortunate not to accompany his team-mate on the podium at the British Grand Prix, being denied a top-three placing by an ill-timed Safety Car intervention.
However, McLaren’s encouraging speed at Silverstone in July provided promising reading heading to a similarly high-speed configuration at Suzuka – something that was not lost on Mercedes, who trailed comfortably behind its powertrain customer.
“Well, I think the update they [McLaren] did in Singapore didn’t look massive there, but that’s all low-speed corners, here [Japan] it’s all high-speed, and that’s what we saw them get very good at when they did the previous update in Austria,” Mercedes Head of Trackside Engineering Andrew Shovlin said.
Ferrari Team Principal Frederic Vasseur went even further, highlighting how Norris stormed to third on the grid in Barcelona with McLaren’s old-spec car. “I think that they [McLaren] had a big issue at the beginning and then they recovered pretty quickly because, even in Barcelona, they were on the second row,” the Ferrari chief retorted.
But the revised MCL60 – bolstered further with the aforementioned upgrades implemented in Singapore – accentuated its core strength in high-speed corners, helping McLaren to deliver its best race result of ‘23.
From the moment the cars hit the track on Japanese soil McLaren appeared to have stolen a march on its closest rivals, eventually winding up second and third in qualifying. However, for only the fourth time this year, it was Piastri who led the way for the British squad, excelling around the highly challenging sweeps of Suzuka to pip his team-mate to a front-row starting berth.
Piastri’s slender advantage over his more senior partner would not extend into Sunday, though, with Norris comprehensively turning the tables on the newcomer to eventually classify ahead by 16s come the chequered flag. The margin between the two papaya-liveried McLarens made for more emphatic reading when analysing the events that unfolded during the 53-lap encounter.
Although Norris had assumed the position as the lead McLaren at the start when polesitter and eventual race winner Max Verstappen pinched the fast-starting Piastri on the approach to Turn 1, the second of the two McLaren drivers managed to get back ahead through a large element of fortune.
Wary of the undercut threat, McLaren pitted Piastri first on Lap 13 and it coincided with the timing of a Virtual Safety Car, thus reducing the length of his overall stop. Furthermore, Norris’ advances had been hampered by the slow-moving lapped Red Bull of Sergio Perez, which he estimated to have cost him up to 10s in overall race time.
The end result was that Piastri emerged in front once Norris exited the pit lane at the start of Lap 18. But the latter immediately began to erode the initial 6.5s gap, prompting McLaren to issue team orders once its two cars were nose to tail. Piastri let Norris through into Turn 1 on Lap 27 before falling behind at an average rate of 0.6s a lap across the second half of the race.
While those arrears could partially be attributed to Piastri momentarily being delayed by the one-stopping Mercedes of George Russell in the latter stages, Piastri was relatively downbeat when addressing his race-day outing, allotting his drop in pace to being stifled by tyre degradation concerns.
“Yeah, just I think the tyre management and just pace at certain points of the race was not as strong as I would have liked,” he reflected. “The first stint it felt like everyone was driving extremely slowly and then when I tried to push a bit more the tyres didn’t really let me go much faster.”
This wasn’t the first time Piastri had fallen foul on the tyre management side versus his team-mate. Although notoriously recognised as a slow-speed circuit, there are several long, winding corners at the Hungaroring circuit that vastly punish the tyres, which undeniably hindered Piastri as he slipped from being ahead of Norris and in podium contention to fifth by the end of that race.
Thankfully for the rookie, McLaren’s status as the outright second-best force in Japan allowed Piastri to escape a repeat of his Hungary troubles unscathed. However, he is acutely aware that getting on top of that glaring weakness will be instrumental to his rate of improvement, particularly when McLaren won’t always be uncontested.
Nevertheless, it’s a testament to Piastri’s credentials and the high standards expected of him that his flaws are being magnified this early into his fledgling F1 career. Being juxtaposed against one of the best all-round drivers on the grid in Norris, who has been granted five years now to perfect his craft, was always going to greatly exaggerate any deficiencies Piastri upheld in his debut year.
Most importantly, Piastri has exhibited on multiple occasions that he has the inherent speed to suggest he can regularly challenge at the sharp end once he smoothens out the rough edges. The 22-year-old has already displayed signs of tidying up his execution in qualifying, culminating in the impressive feat of toppling Norris over a single lap on a proper drivers’ circuit like Suzuka.
“I think the one-lap pace especially in last few weekends has been a good improvement from the start of the year.”
Therefore, there are plenty of reasons to expect that Piastri will take a marked step forward when it comes to his competitiveness in race trim. The McLaren racer has the mentality required to match his sublime skillset and displayed a maturity beyond his tender years to recognise there is room for improvement in the midst of the greatest racing moment of his career so far.
McLaren Team Principal Andrea Stella has emphasised that point on Piastri’s character, admiring his willingness to retrospectively seek improvement from the first day.
“What happened in the early days of the collaboration with Oscar is that we could see that what he achieved in the junior categories had good reasons for that to happen,” Stella expressed. “We even saw it in the first day of the simulator in the way he was assessing his own performance, saying. ‘This is where I am. This is where I need to improve’. It was matching what we could see from the data. That was quite impressive.”
Amid McLaren’s remarkable rise up the competitive order during this year, there is little reason to dispute that the former World Champions will begin in an even stronger position next season. Stella insists that the team hasn’t even explored 50% of its current car philosophy and every upgrade it has attached since Austria has immediately delivered the anticipated gains.
Meanwhile, unlike both Ferrari and Mercedes, McLaren will also not be thwarted by the obstacles that can emerge from needing to radically change car concept over the winter.
Piastri’s path towards potential title glory appears to perfectly concur with McLaren’s planned ascension to the top, placing him within the ideal environment to realise his potential. However, only time will tell whether both parties can rectify the issues at hand to turn their collective dreams into reality.
But for the time being, with two stellar driving talents at the wheel and an ever-improving car underneath them, the future continues to shine bright for McLaren.