|McLaren has been at the center of contractual disputes for the previous weeks that may have ripple effects beyond just their own squad and the teams and drivers with which they are disputing it. Especially, Oscar Piastri’s (AUS) case could be a bad precedent for future young driver development programs.
Oscar Piastri (AUS) is undoubtedly one of the best talents to ever come out of the Formula 1 feeder system, consecutively winning the Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3, and Formula 2 Championships. He is the fifth to win the F3 and F2 titles in consecutive seasons.
A great part of this success is thanks to the support he has received from Alpine, who signed him after winning the Formula Renault title and who had invested millions of Euros in developing his career, including hundreds of kilometers testing F1 machinery, a salary, etc.
Alpine was in a situation where it had three good drivers for two seats: its current divers, Esteban Ocon (FRA) and Fernando Alonso (ESP), and Piastri. This led to an issue whereby, thinking their current drivers would stay, they would be unable to offer a full-time ride for the Australian, for the second year in a row, and were allegedly trying to place him in the lower-performing Williams team.
Piastri and his management -led by former F1 driver Mark Webber (AUS) have to see for the best of his sporting career. A full-time ride is better than remaining just as a standby driver. But a midfield team would be better. It is unclear who approached who but it has been reported by several specialized media that they reached a handshake with McLaren to race for them next year. (Motorsport)
One cannot blame them for pursuing a better deal. Again, that’s what they should do. But the issue here is that Alpine and McLaren are not very different in terms of performance, and Alpine would have offered Piastri a full-time ride for next year because Fernando Alonso (ESP) is leaving for McLaren. The loyal thing to do would be to stay with the team that had given you the tools to have a Super License in the first place.
In the Australian’s defense, it is likely that they negotiated with McLaren when it looked like Alonso and Ocon would stay in Alpine, which was before Sebastian Vettel (DEU) announced he would be retiring at the end of the season, which is what allowed Alonso to move to Aston Martin. Two years of inactivity are a very long time in sport and that was a real risk even with the Williams possibility. Nothing had been signed.
Alpine announced that Piastri will drive for them next year, which he denied on social media the same day. This will be followed by a lawsuit and eventually it might be Formula 1’s Contract Recognition Board that will have the final say about it. It might turn out that Alpine does have the rights to offer or deny Piastri a drive offer before he can sign for another team, or maybe that might have expired after some point, or perhaps they just don’t.
We will know the situation in the upcoming weeks or months. Meanwhile, McLaren is also involved in a controversy with IndyCar’s Chip Ganassi Racing, which announced that current Champion, Alex Palou (ESP) will drive for them next year. Which he promptly denied on social media. Sounds familiar?
One might not think that a Formula 1 team would not have the legal safeguards for a situation like this from happening to them, especially for a factory team. But it might happen. To think that it would also happen to one of the two most successful and traditional teams in IndyCar is increasingly unlikely.
It might be that McLaren’s Zak Brown -who has had a very successful run for the last three years- is feeling too bright for contracts but it could heavily backfire. Or perhaps he is too smart and has been able to capture some of the best talents in the world – let’s remember he also has Patricio O’Ward (MEX) in IndyCar, Colton Herta (USA) as a development driver, and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi as an IndyCar driver for next year. Apparently, he has lured more drivers for his F1 seats than he has available.
That could also go down badly in team morale. O’Ward implied said in an interview that the F1 illusion has been sold to many drivers and he doesn’t have it anymore, as “he is not dumb”, so he is focusing on IndyCar at the moment. (ESPN).
Regardless of McLaren, a worse, wider implication would be if manufacturer teams see this precedent from Piastri and would decide not to nurture future talent because in the future your competitor could groom them and take them away. This might be a non-issue if they have their contracts in place to prevent it. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.
There’s a reason why the season when racing contracts are being negotiated is called the “silly season”. This is a clear example.