There are a few Formula 1 drivers that new Formula 3 champion Oscar Piastri may spark some tentative comparisons to. He emulated Lando Norris’s achievements of back-to-back titles in Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula 3 (let’s not argue over that designation here). And he’s followed Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and George Russell in becoming a champion in his first season on the F1 support package.
But it’s Daniel Ricciardo who presents the most interesting contrast. Not because he’s Australian, or because he flies the Renault flag. It’s the tenacity behind the wheel, the judgement in battle and the charging race drivers that have earned Piastri admirers in the same way Ricciardo’s carved out a reputation as the pre-eminent racer of modern F1.
Ricciardo’s F1 story is littered with eye-catching drives and hard-earned victories without posting stunning numbers. The same might be said for Piastri’s F3 title: no poles, ‘only’ two victories and a three-point winning margin courtesy of a nail-biting season finale at Mugello that required some Aussie grit – fitting given he’s managed by Mark Webber.
When Piastri joins The Race to survey his title charge less than 48 hours after its whirlwind conclusion, he admits that winning it the hard way was an unusual experience.
“It was a bit of an odd feeling to sort of have my race performances be stronger than my qualifying,” he says.
“I think before this year I’d only won one race where I didn’t start from pole. It was a bit of an interesting dynamic.”
Actually, it was twice in Eurocup that Piastri won without starting on pole, but even then he was second and third. All six of his British Formula 4 victories came from the head of the grid.
F3 turned that form on its head. His victories came from third and fifth this season and his other podiums from third, sixth, ninth and 15th. The last of those, a stirring recovery at Monza to rise 12 places to the podium in the feature race, drew rave reviews – even from Ricciardo himself.
Which makes it all the more interesting that when our conversation turns to his racecraft, and whether it is an inherent strength of his, Piastri replies: “To be honest, not really, I think in karts my racecraft was pretty good. But definitely my first couple of years in cars it certainly took me a while to develop.
“In F4 especially that’s sort of where [champion Jamie] Caroline, really dominated especially over the rookies. It’s definitely a skill I’ve acquired over time.
“To be honest I usually rate my overall pace better than my racecraft. So, it’s a bit of an odd feeling knowing that I kind of won this championship based on my racecraft rather than my sort of outright pace, especially in qualifying.
“There’s a couple of races in Eurocup last year, where I had to come from the back to the front. That really proved to myself that I could race well and not just make overtakes stick, but also be efficient in them. I think there’s been a few good examples of that this year as well, especially Monza.
“It’s definitely something strong that I’ve developed over the years.”
He’s in good company there. Learning from experience and deploying that education when it counts has been the hallmark of Ricciardo’s ascension to the top tier among current F1 drivers. He has recalled his first seasons with HRT and Toro Rosso as a bruising encounter that made him stand up and realise he couldn’t be pushed around.
When Ricciardo got promoted to Red Bull, it was sink or swim. He proved with three swashbuckling, unexpected triumphs in 2014 that not only was he ready to handle the pressure he was able to win the hard way. Late dives on the brakes became the norm. Forcing opportunities where they seemed unlikely was his bread and butter.
Piastri has quickly learned the value of not being seen as a soft touch, too.
“In Eurocup, it was a bit of a different scenario,” he says. “I was a second-year driver and I think I kind of came into that as one of the championship favourites. So I had the second-year experience.
“But I didn’t have that this year. Quite a few of the guys that were in the field I’ve raced against before, Logan [Sargeant, Prema team-mate and title rival] I’ve raced three out of the four years I’ve been in cars.
“It was important, early on, to mark my territory and make sure no one was going to push me around. I think I did a good job of that. I’d like to think I did a little bit of the opposite!
“In these upper series, in F3 and moving forward as well you definitely can’t be pushed around at all because people will just pounce on that at every opportunity. It was definitely important to earn respect early on.”
Now, the elephant in the room – or the Zoom call in this instance – is why Piastri needed to rely on this unexpected quality for his title challenge. But he’s the latest in a line of racing proteges who are immensely switched on for their age, and it’s Piastri that raises his qualifying form first.
“Hopefully next year in whatever I’m racing, I can combine that [racecraft] with some more outright pace in qualifying,” he says. “That would make my life much easier!”
It’s fair to say both driver and team seemed to have greater race pace than qualifying performance in 2020. Prema had seven wins this season vs four poles (Sargeant scored three in a row mid-season). Piastri felt he was “lacking a little bit in terms of speed and being a complete driver” after pre-season testing but used the coronavirus pandemic-enforced hiatus to good effect and “came into the season very prepared”.
But, he reckons a mix of factors conspired against his qualifying record, including experiencing Pirelli tyres and the F3 qualifying format for the first time.
“Looking back on it now it’s a bit strange that my first qualifying of the year was actually my best,” he admits. “But I think it was various things.
“There was a few issues out of our control especially Silverstone the second weekend where I think I qualified 11th after only one push lap [because of a mechanical issue that made his car stop twice]. I really had a chance of pole there which was unfortunate.
“Traffic played a part in some of them, especially Spa [where there was then a red flag, then rain] and Monza [where blocking in qualifying has been shambolic for two seasons now].
“And I think just sort of really being on the ball, particularly with the second set of tyres. It’s the first championship where firstly you only really get one or two push laps on the tyre before you know that they’re not good enough for the pole.
“It’s also the first time where you’ve got two separate runs to make a change in the middle and regroups. There were quite a few occasions where I was actually on provisional pole after the first set and then didn’t quite get it together on the second set.
“That’s definitely something I still need to look at and analyse going forward.”
Piastri’s position atop the championship after each of the opening four rounds did a disservice to the up-and-down nature of a season in which nobody really threaded together stunning momentum. He then slipped behind Sargeant in the points, but regained the lead heading to the season finale courtesy of his Monza charge to third – despite then being taken out of the sprint race by some clumsy driving, and picking up a grid drop for Mugello for his own incident.
Piastri felt that five-place penalty was undeserved, but it was exacerbated by his own “very average” qualifying performance that put him 16th on the grid at a circuit that threatened little overtaking, while Sargeant was fifth and ART’s outside title protagonist Theo Pourchaire seventh.
It was the most testing end to an already draining campaign.
“To be honest the whole season was pretty mentally taxing,” Piastri says. “It was only 11 weeks in total so I didn’t really have much time to digest anything.
“But the last two were probably two of the most stressful weekends of my life. Monza was very up and down. Unfortunately, mainly down with a good drive on Saturday that made a bit better.
“Mugello was tough. I basically just had to try and salvage anything I could, in Saturday’s race.”
His goal of sneaking reverse-grid pole was missed but Piastri at least grabbed 11th, so started the finale five places behind Sargeant (now equal on points at the top) and three behind Pourchaire (whose third place in race one put him just nine points behind the Prema pair).
“I knew that going into the last race I still had a chance,” he says. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I knew that anything could happen. And I think about anything that could have happened did happen in that race!”
Sergeant was wiped out in a first-lap crash, which put Piastri in control. He was up to seventh after a good start, and ahead of Pourchaire. But a bad restart dropped him to ninth, which then became 10th a few laps later, while Pourchaire moved in the other direction.
When Pourchaire was up to fourth, Piastri was still 10th. But then the tide turned. Piastri passed one car as Pourchaire moved into third, then team-mate Frederik Vesti moved aside so Piastri could hold eighth. Pourchaire’s rise was limited to third and Piastri was provisionally champion, then grabbed seventh in a photo-finish to end with a flourish.
“It was very, very mentally challenging,” he says. “I’ll definitely remember those last two weekends for a long time.”
No wonder, for he got what he needed but had to earn it the hard way. That reflects his season pretty nicely, though if he moves to F2 next season as expected he’ll hope not to have to face that the hard way, too.
What Piastri does next and with which team, he doesn’t know. That’s down to his management team, and Piastri oozes gratitude for the efforts put in by both of the Webbers (Mark and Ann) this year behind the scenes, his first in the Jam Sports Management stable they run with Jason Allen.
Piastri knows it’s a “first in, best-dressed” situation for F2. Sticking with Prema would be a strong move as it may be about to end 2020 with Mick Schumacher as champion. But there are alternatives, especially ART, which has won the past two championships and with which Piastri’s fellow Renault protege Christian Lundgaard is an outside contender for the title this year.
“I’m sure it’ll kick off very quickly and that’s obviously something that Mark and Ann will be working on very hard,” he says. “So I think we’ll probably firm things up sooner rather than later.”
Renault may also play a part, as it will surely want to keep a hold of the driver who only became part of its F1 talent pool for this season, after winning the manufacturer’s Eurocup title last year. And with vital career momentum on his side, Piastri should court a lot of attention.
Plenty of drivers have proven that rookie status is no obstacle to immediate success in F2 and that makes him an exciting option with Renault’s current roster, even though its works team is being ‘replaced’ for 2021 under the Alpine name.
That team, or any new customer it might attract, would still be a potential destination if Piastri can prove himself ready by 2022 or 2023. But as his F3 season has shown, Piastri knows where to pick his battles. The one that earns Renault’s faith will take place on-track, so he’s careful not to bang that drum too hard.
“It’s pretty cool to know that I’m in the ladder in the academy and I’m sort of getting towards the top end of the Academy in terms of where everyone is in various championships,” he says.
“It’s cool to think about. Obviously, F1’s still pretty far away. There’s still a few more hurdles to get over, but having Renault in my corner is something I’m really, really grateful for.”
With Ricciardo leaving Renault for McLaren in 2021, one combative Aussie is heading for the exit door at Renault. It would be unwise for the manufacturer to let this one go too.