Why F1 Australian Grand Prix Fans Are All-in for Oscar Piastri

·5 min read
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Why F1 Australian GP Fans Are All-in for PiastriQian Jun/MB Media - Getty Images
  • For the past two decades, Australian F1 fans have rooted for Australians Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.

  • Unlike his direct predecessors, who hailed from New South Wales and Western Australia respectively, Oscar Piastri is a true Melburnian.

  • However, Piastri has never before raced at this week's F1 venue Albert Park, or even in any single-seater category in Australia.

Formula 1 rolls back into the sports-mad city of Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix and Round 3 of the 2023 season. The focus for the locals has typically been on the gregarious Daniel Ricciardo.

Now it’s Oscar Piastri’s turn.

For the past two decades, Australian F1 fans have always had one of their own to cheer, with Mark Webber bursting onto the scene in a stunning debut in 2002, before Daniel Ricciardo took over the mantle in the 2010s.

Unlike his direct predecessors who hailed from New South Wales and Western Australia, respectively, Piastri is a true Melburnian, having grown up in Brighton, a short distance south of this weekend's race venue at Albert Park.

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Oscar Piasti is Australia’s new favorite son when it comes to Formula 1.Robert Cianflone - Getty Images

However, Piastri has never before raced at Albert Park, or even in any single-seater category in Australia, having left for England as a teenager to pursue his Formula 1 dream. He used to play cricket and Aussie Rules Football on the ovals in Albert Park, and he attended the 2015 F1 event as a ‘grid kid’, for then Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat, having been nominated by the local motorsport body.

Last year, Piastri had to watch the race from the sidelines, as Alpine’s reserve driver, a few days after celebrating his 21st birthday at a beachfront bar in Brighton. In a short speech at that jovial small event, mentor and manager Webber was adamant that he would get his protégé on the grid for Melbourne’s 2023 race. And, after getting Piastri in at McLaren, Webber proved true to his word.

“It's great to be heading to Melbourne for my home Grand Prix,” said Piastri. “I grew up in the suburbs of the city and it is a special feeling to be returning as an F1 driver. It's set to be a fantastic atmosphere and I can’t wait to get there and be a part of it. This will be the first time that I've raced at Albert Park and I’m sure it will be an experience that I remember.”

Expectations, though, will need to be tempered for Piastri’s Melbourne debut.

Piastri's team, McLaren, is in a competitive rut as it awaits the first upgrade package in Azerbaijan from its altered development direction to replace its outdated launch concept. There have been flashes of pace—such as Piastri’s excellent Q3 appearance in Saudi Arabia—but at the moment it has the sixth-best package, is too draggy, and has also been operationally so-so. McLaren is last in the Constructors’ Championship with no points scored.

Last week’s confirmation of the team's technical reshuffle, with James Key leaving and ex-Ferrari guru David Sanchez not joining until 2024, indicates McLaren’s turnaround will not be a quick one.

“The improvement of car performance should start in Baku,” said team principal Andrea Stella on Thursday. A near-B-spec car is anticipated before the summer break, with another major update after the recess, as part of McLaren’s long-term aim to have a top four car.

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Oscar Piastri has finishes of 15th and 20th in the opening two races of the 2023 campaign.Peter Fox - Getty Images

“It’s the start of the season, we're two races in,” said McLaren CEO Zak Brown. “It is not nearly as bad as it looks from the first two races, but it's not clearly as good as it needs to be.”

Compared to his predecessor Piastri is an unassuming and methodical character and McLaren has been impressed by the early displays.

“His attitude and way of working with the team has been very consistent,” said Stella. “On day one he started in a certain way and we liked it, and thought that’s the way we should work together. He’s very calm, he doesn’t say many words, but you think ‘I couldn’t have said the same more precisely’, which we like. He has very good awareness of what’s going on, he’s calm, a lot of quick elaboration in his mind while he’s driving. I think we’ve all seen session after session the opportunities he identifies himself or with his engineers, the next session he goes and he capitalizes, so this has been a repeated characteristic so far.”

McLaren has kept Piastri’s off-track distractions ahead of his home race to a minimum and are convinced “he can stay focused on keeping up this exceptional rate of development session after session.”

Piastri’s Melbourne debut comes amid the return of Ricciardo to Formula 1’s paddock.

Ricciardo is acting as third driver and brand ambassador for Red Bull and will attend a handful of grands prix this year, the first on home soil, having been absent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The Australian remains hugely popular with fans at Albert Park in spite of his non-driving role this weekend and has a busy schedule of marketing activities.