The Oscar Piastri saga has been one of the more remarkable off-track storylines in recent memory, and that’s saying something given the way Formula 1 seems to find ways of constantly keeping itself in the limelight.
Two distinct approaches were taken to handling the situation, with Alpine forcing the issue with its announcements and statements, requiring a singular response from Piastri himself at the start of August and then silence from his camp and McLaren that must have been very hard to keep.
Behind the scenes you then start to be able to build-up a picture of the situation from each side, with the truth usually somewhere in the middle. But in this case, the truth was firmly in McLaren’s court, as confirmed by the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board (CRB).
Piastri didn’t have a contract with Alpine for 2023, and he barely had one for 2022.
“Going into it, I didn’t know all the arguments on the other side,” Otmar Szafnauer said on Saturday. “Thereafter, I mean, it took four days, as everybody knows. There are good arguments on both sides and walking out, I thought it was about 50-50. As it turned out, they didn’t rule in our favor, so after, no [not surprised] — I would have accepted either way.”
50-50 is more than optimistic on Szafnauer’s part, but at this point I will defend him for a split second. This was a problem not of his making — it stems from Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi not following through on a promise to put a contract in front of Piastri in late 2021 — but he’s the man having to front up.
That’s about where any defense Alpine has ends. Piastri has now come out and said the team knew he was leaving long before Fernando Alonso’s departure was announced, which upset him when Alpine then chose to issue the press release claiming he’d race for the team in 2023 — making public what had previously been behind closed doors.
On Saturday at the Dutch Grand Prix, Szafnauer insisted he learned of Piastri’s signing date — July 4 — with McLaren long after the fact, but that’s not to say he didn’t know of McLaren’s interest prior to that. As Andreas Seidl confirmed earlier the same day: “Alpine was — well in advance before the announcement they made regarding Oscar driving for them next year — informed by Oscar, including conversations Zak [Brown] and myself had with the [Alpine management], of what was going on.”
Sources suggest knowledge of talks between McLaren and Piastri had surfaced in June, despite Szafnauer stating: “Up until [Alonso left], it’s just conjecture, really.
“We knew exactly what Oscar had signed with us and we were pursuing that. And that’s the reason for pursuing it, up until the point where we got a written notification saying that, ‘We can’t drive for you,’ and then we started investigating through the CRB.”
But Piastri and his management team insist they informed Alpine of his departure on multiple occasions, with his McLaren deal finally signed nearly a month before Alonso left.
Can you blame Piastri? I admit, I felt sorry for him during August, believing he’d been badly advised by Mark Webber. Despite Alpine’s clear intention to extend with Alonso, it seemed risky to commit to a future elsewhere — and a potential contractual battle — before the Spaniard’s future was confirmed.
But the CRB has made clear that there was no such contractual battle to be had because Piastri and Webber had been messed around so much that he waited nearly six months to get an offer that was meant to come in 10 days. By then, the terms had very much changed and were not agreeable.
Already sitting the season out, securing a seat on the grid elsewhere was the smart thing to do, because nothing that went before told him it would come together at Alpine, despite Piastri fulfilling all of his duties as reserve driver even amid such uncertainty. The way negotiation topics were attempted to be presented as contracts — despite the document in question explicitly stating they were ‘Subject to Contract’ — and Alpine tried to get around FIA protocols about his registration must have been huge red flags.
The timing of Piastri’s contract being signed raised eyebrows because it came nine days before Ricciardo put out a statement affirming his commitment to the team and seeing out his contract. RACER understands that Piastri was always signed as a replacement for Ricciardo — not as a potential reserve (though such a get-out clause may have existed) — and until that point, the 33-year-old had been given hints of discontent but no firm indication that he’d be replaced.
That’s because Ricciardo held all the cards, with the break clause only on his side, and he didn’t want to walk away, nor did he intend to. So McLaren started increasing the rhetoric about how damaging his struggles were, and when both sides couldn’t make it work on track, the expensive trigger was pulled.
The other option was to see out 2023 with Ricciardo (paying out his contract either way) but be unsure as to who would be available to replace him. A bit like Webber and Piastri, McLaren felt that was a chance it couldn’t take.
Brown’s and Seidl’s biggest failing is not clearly informing Ricciardo they intended to replace him once they had a deal with Piastri in place. McLaren wasn’t obliged to let him know of all the talks prior to that, but the team knew what its intentions were by that point and left Ricciardo waiting to see if it was going to act on its concerns about his performances.
It means Ricciardo now has even fewer options than he would have had, but given what he’ll have learned about Alpine’s management of Piastri in recent weeks (even claiming he wasn’t entitled to representation in the CRB hearing and trying to argue he should pay his own legal costs as a result — the board obviously refused) you wonder if he’d want to return to his former team anyway. It could well be that he now takes time to reflect on what comes next.
Whether he does that or not, reflect and learn are things Alpine absolutely has to do. The trackside engineering team is strong, and it has a car that has outperformed McLaren so far this year, but behind the scenes it dropped the ball massively and then tried to paint its junior driver as the villain, calling Piastri’s integrity into question.
Integrity would have been following through on its promises from last year, or trying to resolve the situation with Piastri prior to Alonso’s departure suddenly making his services required.
It might not have been a problem of Szafnauer’s making, but it was one that was terribly handled. At least he acknowledges there’s lessons for Alpine to learn.
“All this happened in November of last year,” Szafnauer said of where Alpine went wrong. “It’s easy to blame people that aren’t here anymore, but that’s not my style, so the right thing to do is to have a have a look at what happened, understand where the shortcomings were and fix them for the future.”
It took a while to emerge, but there’s a lot more that needs fixing than on Piastri and McLaren’s side — that much has become clear.