Oscar Piastri’s rapid rise could pose a threat to Lando Norris’ F1 career

Thomas Maher
McLaren drivers Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

McLaren's Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri make up the youngest pairing on the grid.

Oscar Piastri’s impressive rookie season may leave Lando Norris in danger of being left behind if the Australian continues to impress.

In the world of Formula 1, it is inevitable that, eventually, no matter how young and talented a driver is, there will be someone coming up behind who has the measure of them and will, eventually, topple them.

20 years ago, Michael Schumacher’s reign was ended by Fernando Alonso, who stumbled himself shortly after as Lewis Hamilton arrived in the sport. Sebastian Vettel’s reputation as one of F1’s elite was toppled by Hamilton as well who, in turn, had his light dimmed by Max Verstappen. But who might be the man to topple Max? Many thought it could be Lando Norris. But, in recent weeks, it’s Norris’ teammate who is underlining his potential.

Oscar Piastri’s rapid rise through the ranks and into F1

Let there be no doubt that there are very few question marks over Oscar Piastri’s pedigree. The Australian won the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup before winning the Formula 3 title at the first time of asking in 2020.

Rising into Formula 2 in 2021 should have proven a stickier subject than it did, but Piastri blasted through that barrier with ease as well – comfortably beating Robert Shwartzman to the title.

A seat in F1 looked unlikely, meaning an awkward year on the sidelines unable to race in F2 after winning the title at his first attempt, but a lifeline opened up as Fernando Alonso ditched Alpine to join Aston Martin – making Piastri the obvious choice after enjoying Alpine’s backing through the junior categories.

But, bizarrely, Piastri turned his back on Alpine – taking to Twitter in what has become one of the most famous F1 social media moments in living memory as he distanced himself from the team rolling out a factory drive for him as a rookie driver yet to even take part in a single race.

It had the potential to absolutely ruin Piastri’s career before it had even begun, but his manager – the razor-sharp and gutsy Mark Webber – had already secured him a berth with McLaren – a brave call given the obvious pitfalls had the Contract Recognition Board ruled in Alpine’s favour.

But it all worked out in the end (even if Alpine might disagree), and Piastri moved to the Woking-based team – only for the car to prove pretty rubbish at the start of the year as the MCL60 proved tricky and, worse, outright slow.

Lando Norris, who had enjoyed his position as the undisputed king of McLaren for most of the previous two years as Daniel Ricciardo withered away, has had to re-adjust to a very different dynamic all of a sudden. Having been the golden boy, Piastri has been a close match for Norris for most of the year – a situation Ricciardo was very rarely able to achieve.

With McLaren’s upgrades bringing the MCL60 on-song to potentially be the second-quickest car on the grid, it’s giving Norris and Piastri far more opportunity to showcase their talents – as borne out by Norris’ two podium finishes in Silverstone and a strong recovery to seventh at Spa.

Piastri was unlucky to be undone by a Safety Car at Silverstone, one that cost him a maiden podium appearance, while the timing of his pit stop in Hungary cost him position to Norris after threading the needle at Turn 1 to move into second place. Scoring a ‘podium’ in the Sprint at Spa confirmed Piastri had the mettle to go wheel-to-wheel with Max Verstappen, before being brought back down to Earth with a bang as Carlos Sainz turned into La Source expecting the McLaren to suddenly dissolve into intangibility.

Oscar Piastri an F1 free agent before Lando Norris

Norris is still an incredibly young driver, despite his now-considerable experience in F1, and committed his immediate future to McLaren as loyalty won out, even as the likes of Red Bull came calling.

In 2018, Red Bull attempted to sign him as a replacement for the struggling Brendon Hartley – an overture that didn’t work out as Norris stuck with McLaren. At the end of 2021, there were discussions between the two sides once again as Red Bull chatted with him about replacing Sergio Perez.

But, as before, Norris chose to stick with Woking.

“Of course, there are talks with other people from time to time,” Norris said at the time.

“You always ask yourself the question: What’s best for my career? After all, I want to win [races] and win world championships.

“There have been talks with Red Bull. They are a team that has been in the top three for years. But that just shows even more how much confidence I have in McLaren. Although there were talks, I felt McLaren was better for me to achieve my goals.”

But that was before McLaren’s slump, and the arrival of Piastri. And, alarmingly for Norris, Piastri’s contract with McLaren comes to an end before his own – the Australian will be a free agent at the conclusion of 2024 – putting him in prime position for a seat elsewhere while Norris continues for at least another season at McLaren.

Norris’ loyalty, admirable though it may be, could prove his undoing in that regard – Piastri and Webber both have shown they have the balls to make the cutthroat decisions to further the goal of delivering Piastri to the top.

But that’s all assuming that McLaren stay where they are – close to, but not quite at, the very top. With podiums, and potentially even wins, up for grabs, will harmony between Norris and Piastri continue? After all, Piastri has shown a remarkable level-headed coolness no matter what’s thrown at him – he handled the pressures of leading in Belgium with ease, while Norris fell into a ‘negative spiral’ as his Sunday race fell apart early on before his eventual recovery.

Norris, too, is well-known for his occasionally panicky radio messages when he feels things are getting away from him – although Verstappen has proven that emotional outbursts aren’t necessarily a detraction from performance.

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Praise from the McLaren boss Andrea Stella

McLaren team boss Andrea Stella has spoken in glowing terms about their signing, saying that Piastri is making the process of becoming a top-level driver look simple.

“Where he is at the moment is part of the gradient that we saw right from the start of testing and the first races. But, when you have a gradient, you very much have an expectation,” he told media, including PlanetF1.com, in Belgium.

“When you see this expectation becoming material, then you’re always a little impressed. The interesting point of Oscar is that he’s making all this look simple, he is making look simple that, in these conditions, you pit, you lead the race, and you go from inters to dry and never make a mistake.

“I think this is the most impressive thing that I can witness. All of this is achieved with a pretty unique approach in terms of how calm and considerate he is. Indeed, so far, it’s quite impressive.”

But has his development as a driver actually sped up, in line with the car’s rapid improvement?

“Based on what I saw at the start, I’m not sure it has actually accelerated. I think he just took benefit from the car being more competitive, therefore there are more opportunities to show what he is capable of,” Stella said.

“In fairness, I think this is in line with what we saw at the start. It wasn’t easy to get in a McLaren car, which we’ve commented about the characteristic of this car and how much it created issues for drivers and actually feel like uncomfortable in pushing. It’s not like ‘the ideal car I would like to drive, but I can adapt and I’m going to extract what’s available’.

“This was apparent already at the start of the season to us, but less apparent outside just because the car wasn’t very competitive. So I will say he is consolidating the gradient that we saw at the start.”

Oscar Piastri: I don’t want to settle for matching Lando Norris

Piastri himself has set himself the goal of beating Lando Norris on a more regular basis by the end of his rookie season – something that would certainly put a halt to the career reputation that the British driver has built up.

“I don’t want to just be close to Lando, of course, I want to try and beat him,” Piastri said.

“It’s not an easy task, I think we all know how good Lando is. But I don’t want to just settle there. It’s been nice to be so close. But, until you’re beating your teammate, you’re always going to feel like there’s more to come.”

Tellingly, Piastri doesn’t feel like he needs to do a whole lot differently in order to keep up his strong rookie season. His approach has worked wonders in the junior categories, and his cool, methodical approach has made this year perhaps the most assured rookie season for any driver since, perhaps, Lewis Hamilton in 2007.

As it stands, there are no obvious weaknesses on Piastri’s end. Combine his strengths with the worldliness and nous of Webber, and there’s no telling how far Piastri might be able to go.

“I’ve tried to keep the same approach for the whole year, even when we were struggling towards the back versus being at the front now,” he said.

“The motivation, of course, gets a boost when you’re fighting for trophies, but the hard work and the way of going about things is still the same. You know, try and get the most out of the car, out of myself. That’s no different whether you’re fighting for third or 15th. It’s just the prize you get at the end is a bit nicer.

“So I don’t think I’ll change. Of course, I’ll reflect on it and see if there’s anything I should change or could be better. But I think on the whole, I’ve been quite happy with how I approach things. And I think I’ll keep that.”

Of course, while Norris may be Piastri’s short-term target, it’s Verstappen who eventually will be toppled by someone else. Having raced a driver younger than him for a race win for the first time in Belgium, might Piastri be the one to eventually halt the Dutch driver’s relentless winning?

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