Diving straight in at the deep end for his 2023 debut season, what must Oscar Piastri achieve at McLaren to ensure he remains a permanent F1 fixture?
Nico Rosberg is in no doubt. Holding up the ‘your team-mate is the ultimate benchmark’ placard, the former World Champion says Piastri must get the better of Lando Norris or bust.
“It’s a brave move by Oscar, it really is,” said Rosberg of the rookie driver who has snubbed the chance of a race seat at Alpine to join McLaren.
“It’s either he beats Lando or he’s out, basically, of the sport, so it’s really tough, but he believes in himself. And if you think you’re that good, you’ve got to go for it.”
Few would disagree Piastri has set himself a harder task in pitting himself against Lando Norris next season than Esteban Ocon.
Not because Norris is a vastly superior driver to the Frenchman – we would certainly put the Briton ahead in terms of talent but they are by no means leagues apart from each other.
It is more that Piastri is swapping the familiar Alpine environment, where he came through their academy, for the unknown territory of McLaren – and we all know how that turned out for his Australian compatriot, Daniel Ricciardo, when he trod the same path.
But Ricciardo, of course, was at a much later stage of his career when he walked into Norrisland and found himself swept out of there a year before the end of his contract.
So does Piastri, as Rosberg says, need to “beat Lando” in his first season to ensure he sustains a Formula 1 career?
Well, if the 21-year-old from Melbourne does outscore Norris in 2023, then it is very clear he is something extra special.
After all, in Norris we are talking about a racer who, if he is not yet in the highest bracket with the likes of Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, has to be advancing towards it.
We have seen enough from the 22-year-old Briton, certainly over the last three of his four years in F1, to show he has exceptional talent which is only being limited in the form of results by the capabilities of the McLaren car.
How would it be any disgrace for Piastri to be outscored by Norris in his debut campaign?
It wouldn’t…not if the rookie provided solid back-up and established himself as a regular points finisher, keeping the McLaren total ticking over at a level which gave them every chance of finishing ahead of their most direct 2023 competitor, whomever that may be.
To exemplify, McLaren have waged head-to-head battles against Ferrari and Alpine respectively in the last two seasons. In 2021, Ricciardo finished 44 points behind the second-placed Ferrari driver, Charles Leclerc, in the championship. It is a similar story this year, 36 adrift of Alonso.
The first target for Piastri must be to avoid that kind of deficit.
If he does, and Norris is, say, even 30 points ahead of him at the end of the season, based upon McLaren remaining at a similar Constructors’ P4/P5 level, that ought to represent a very creditable debut campaign – in the knowledge that Piastri can surely only improve with experience.
As Norris did after his rookie season, quite considerably too.
So, does that state a compelling case for Piastri to be given time if he does not blow Norris out of the water straight away, or is Rosberg correct that there is no patience in F1?
We are very much on the side of the former but let’s look at a few past examples of how this duel could go, when an inexperienced driver went head-to-head in a team with someone much more established in F1.
A big rookie success story
Lewis Hamilton v Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 2007
Examples do not get more famous than this one. McLaren’s all-new line-up for 2007 comprised a reigning World Champion, who was just arriving at the team, and a hugely promising debutant.
We all know what happened – lots of fighting for internal supremacy and Hamilton matching his illustrious colleague on track, to the stage where they both ended up on the same number of World Championship points, only one behind Kimi Raikkonen who snatched the title at the final race.
Hamilton had only a year to wait for his first championship of seven, while Alonso hotfooted it back to Renault and has never captured another one since.
Sunk rather than swam
Jolyon Palmer v Kevin Magnussen, Renault, 2016; Stoffel Vandoorne v Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 2017
These two second-tier champions both have a distinct parallel with Piastri, in that both of them had to wait a full year for their elevation to F1.
Each were given a second season by their team after an underwhelming first, Palmer scoring only a solitary point in Malaysia in 2016 whereas Magnussen collected seven, and the Briton was dropped with four races of 2017 left when trailing new colleague Nico Hulkenberg by 35 points. Palmer now works as a Formula 1 media pundit.
Vandoorne went up against Alonso at McLaren and at least was given two full campaigns during a low ebb for the team, losing out by four points to the Spaniard in 2016 and a starker 38 in 2017, after which he was dropped.
The Belgian remains a reserve driver for McLaren and Mercedes but is now a single-seater World Champion, having clinched the latest Formula E title.
A success, but not overnight
Nico Rosberg v Mark Webber, Williams, 2006
Perhaps most significantly, if Rosberg wanted an example of a driver who failed to beat his team-mate in the first season and yet still reached the F1 summit, he need only look in the mirror.
Williams had a poor 2006 season, beset by reliability problems, but it was Webber who scored seven points to Rosberg’s four, the latter having arrived straight from winning the GP2 series.
Webber then headed straight to Red Bull while Rosberg, after three more years at Williams, joined Mercedes – culminating with his dramatic 2016 title triumph.
So there you have it, Nico. You are a walking example of why it needn’t mean the end for a rookie who fails to beat his team-mate in year one.