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Understanding the Alpine – Oscar Piastri mess

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6 mins read
Understanding the Alpine - Oscar Piastri mess

It’s been two days since the Alpine-Piastri mess happened and we still don’t have much clarity on the matter. 

It all started with Aston Martin announcing Fernando Alonso as their driver to replace the outgoing Sebastian Vettel, which caught Alpine off guard. They responded to this by stating that they weren’t aware of Alonso leaving until Aston Martin put out the announcement. The same day, the French team announced 21-year-old Australian Oscar Piastri as Alonso’s replacement for the 2023 season.

The announcement did have its critics, given that there was no official statement or quote from Piastri himself. Within an hour, however, Piastri put out a statement on social media announcing that he had not signed any contract with Alpine and would not be driving for them in 2023.

So, what exactly is going on, and how did we get to this situation? Let’s take a look at the key players and the multiple angles at play.

Also Read – Top 10 Sebastian Vettel moments

The Alonso angle

All of this started when Sebastian Vettel shocked the Formula One paddock by announcing his retirement ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix on July 28. Vettel had hinted that he was working with Aston Martin towards a potential extension, but the four-time World Champion took everyone by surprise after announcing his retirement, stating he would be leaving the sport at the end of the current season. 

Vettel’s announcement put a host of things into action, starting with the empty seat at Aston Martin for the 2023 season and beyond. Now, the Aston Martin project is the passion project of billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll, who bought the team and rebranded them as Aston Martin ahead of the 2021 season. Stroll has been clear about taking the team to the front of the grid and has invested heavily towards the same. Signing a four-time World Champion in Vettel was just a sign of where Stroll wants to take the team.

The issue, though, was that the team hadn’t taken steps towards the front of the grid yet. After a tough 2021, they were the dark horses for the 2022 season given the regulation changes. The new season has been worse for them, however. On most weekends, they are at best the ninth fastest on the grid and struggle to make it into the points. Vettel most likely didn’t believe in the project and, being a four-time World Champion, did not want to waste his time fighting over positions outside the points places.

Vettel’s retirement opened up multiple possibilities for the team, but Stroll once again showed that he meant business and that his goal was clear: take the team to the front of the grid. Just days after Vettel’s announcement, Aston Martin announced that double World Champion Fernando Alonso would be replacing Vettel for the 2023 season and beyond. 

Signing someone like Alonso showcases that the Spaniard himself believes in the project, and a multi-year contract also signifies that he is ready to give the project time. A major point to be noted here is that Alonso just turned 41; drivers are generally past their prime after 34. Despite being 41 and having taken two years off from the sport, Alonso is still putting up astonishing numbers and has been one of the better drivers of the season. Alonso has also been getting the better of Esteban Ocon ever since his return in 2021, and given his strong form he probably expected a longer deal with Alpine, but they had already given Esteban Ocon a four-year contract in 2021 and were desperately looking to get their academy and reserve driver Oscar Piastri into the other seat by 2024.

It is believed that Alpine wanted to provide Alonso with a single-year contract and then get Piastri into that seat. Alonso was unhappy with this and looked elsewhere. Alpine have since stated that they wanted to offer Alonso a one-year deal and an option of a second year based on performance. They have also stated that Alonso’s age was a key factor in them being hesitant to offer a multi-year contract.

However, Alpine were unaware of Alonso’s move and were expecting him to sign a new deal with them. Alonso surprised them by signing a deal with Aston Martin instead, about which Alpine only got to know once the Silverstone-based team put out a media release regarding the same. A multi-year deal was something Alonso wanted, and he found that at Aston Martin.

With Alonso announcing his departure from Alpine, the French team were now left with a vacant seat from the 2023 season onwards.

Alpine’s statement

A day after Alonso’s announcement, Alpine took to social media to put out an announcement of their own. They stated that Oscar Piastri, the 2021 Formula 2 champion, would be partnering Esteban Ocon for the 2023 season. Their statement had a quote from team boss Otmar Szafnauer, but there was no quote from Piastri himself, which was a bit weird and seemed off. 

Piastri has been one of the motorsport’s hottest properties for a while now. After winning the Formula 3 and Formula 2 championships in his maiden seasons, it was hard to keep him away from an F1 seat. He has already driven around 3500 kms in a Formula One car and is also set to appear in free practice sessions during the ongoing season. Alpine recognised this, and in not wanting to lose the Australian, they had kept Piastri as a reserve driver and were looking to get him into Alonso’s seat for 2024. This, though, wasn’t something that either Alonso or Piastri were onboard with. While Alonso wanted a longer contract with the team, Piastri wanted to get into Formula One before 2024. 

Piastri is highly rated in the paddock, and multiple teams, including the likes of McLaren and Williams, have already been monitoring his situation. Alpine also knew of this, and once Alonso announced his departure from the team, the Enstone-based team, who have Piastri as their reserve driver, wasted no time in announcing him as their driver for the 2023 season. Given that they have Piastri under a contract, Alpine probably thought they could announce Piastri for their main seat without any hassle.

Piastri’s response

The announcement of Piastri as Alpine’s driver seems to have been done without consulting with Piastri or his manager, former Red Bull driver Mark Webber. Piastri immediately responded to Alpine’s statement, stating the reports of him signing with Alpine for the 2023 season were untrue and that he would not be driving for them. 

Piastri’s statement has sent the entire Formula One world into a world of shock and brought upon utter chaos. 

What’s next? 

At the time of writing, there has been no update from either Alpine or Piastri’s camp. What seems most likely is that both parties will be heading to the CRB, FIA’s contract recognition board, to sort out the issue. This will most likely lead to a legal hassle, which was avoidable on all fronts. The Race‘s Scott Mitchell states that Alpine personnel believe they were within their legal rights to put out the statement regarding his signing and the French driver will race for them. Even team boss Otmar Szafnauer has spoken about finding a legal way to keep Piastri at Alpine if needed. 

Alpine and Piastri can stick together, and Piastri could make his much-awaited Formula One debut next season alongside Esteban Ocon. That, though, will be a tough scenario given the damage Piastri and Alpine’s relationship has taken over the last couple of days. 

Another scenario is that Piastri leaves Alpine and signs for another Formula One team. Certain reports suggest that Piastri’s contract with Alpine had a clause till July 31 to guarantee a seat for the upcoming season. Alonso made his announcement on August 1, by when Piastri was most likely looking at different options apart from Alpine to make his Formula One debut. He would have most likely expected Alonso to carry on with the team and was looking out for himself as he did not expect to race for Alpine in 2023.

If that is the case, it goes with the reports that suggest McLaren are looking to sign Piastri and replace fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo with the youngster. Ricciardo, who signed for McLaren in 2021, has had a torrid time with the team, and even though he gave the team their only win since 2012 in Monza last year, his performance with the team in general has been less than ordinary. 

Both McLaren and Ricciardo have been vocal about their struggles, and while Ricciardo has insisted that he plans to see out his double-year contract with the team, McLaren boss Zak Brown have also suggested that they may look at various angles and, if needed, use an exit clause in Ricciardo’s contract.

Should McLaren sign Piastri by releasing Ricciardo, the Australian does have an open route back to the team he left to go to McLaren. He had a strong couple of seasons with Renault in 2019 and 2020, and  Szafnauer himself has stated earlier that they would welcome Ricciardo back to the Enstone team. For now, even though he isn’t directly involved in the mess, Ricciardo remains a key player, and his future with or without the team can answer a lot of questions.

The fact that Piastri has publicly turned down Alpine’s offer whilst having no seat of his own does back the fact that the Piastri camp certainly found grey areas in his contract and quite obviously have been speaking to other teams for a seat. 

Williams are another team interested in Piastri, but it seems like they have put their faith elsewhere in Logan Sargent, who will be making his Formula One debut later this season at the United States Grand Prix free practice session and could be on for a Formula One seat next year. Piastri had been linked with the team previously as well and, at one point, was even expected to make his F1 debut with them.

With the announcement of Alonso’s departure, Piastri most likely would have taken steps to secure a seat elsewhere, most likely McLaren, and it seems unlikely that he will be moving to the British team. On August 3, Williams announced Alex Albon’s retention for 2023 and beyond. Although they haven’t announced Albon’s partner yet, it is unlikely that Piastri heads to Williams to partner Albon. 

What happens next, no one can predict. But as far as silly seasons go, this might just be one of the silliest.

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