“It would be silly if I wasn't coming in and trying to get that third title,” Oscar Piastri says matter-of-factly. The Australian has recently been announced as Alpine F1 Team’s Reserve Driver for 2022, but his immediate focus is on achieving a feat that even generational talents George Russell and Charles Leclerc weren’t able to on their way up the junior ladder.
Leading 2022 Alfa Romeo driver Guanyu Zhou in the Championship battle by 36 points, Piastri is on course to emulate Russell and Leclerc by winning back-to-back F3/GP3 and F2 titles.
But what separates Piastri from the pair on paper is his 2018 Formula Renault Eurocup crown. Neither Russell nor Leclerc had won a title in the season prior to winning GP3.
“Even if it was set to be my first title ever, I would be silly not to try and get it. It would certainly be a CV booster,” says Piastri. “I know it is my rookie season, but I think that we have shown in the first half of the year that we are more than capable as a team, and myself. I think aiming for anything less than would be undershooting our potential.”
Although the PREMA driver won’t be on the F1 grid in 2022, he will be working more closely with Alpine, replacing former Red Bull and Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat as their official reserve.
And while he feels that he’s “ready for Formula 1 now,” the 20-year-old appreciates the lack of seats available for 2022 and the reasons for that, with both Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon tied down for the season already, ahead of a regulations overhaul.
After Alex Albon was named as Russell’s replacement at Williams, the only realistic opportunity was at Alfa Romeo, a seat that eventually went to Piastri’s primary title rival, Zhou.
Even if it was set to be my first title ever, I would be silly not to try and get it
Despite leading the championship, Piastri’s name was only ever loosely linked with the seat in the media. Asked whether he found this strange, Piastri replied: “Yes and no.
“Yes, because it does feel a little bit strange to me that the Championship leader is not getting mentioned for these seats by the media, but at the same time, I can very much understand why. I am linked with Alpine and Fernando (Alonso) has been confirmed for next year.
Working alongside Ocon in 2022, Piastri won’t have to look far for an example of a driver who's spent a year on the sidelines before earning a seat. The Frenchman spent the 2019 campaign as a reserve for Mercedes before getting an opportunity with Alpine (then named Renault) in 2020 – he’s now tied down until at least 2024.
And given the speed at which Piastri learns, you would expect him to greatly benefit from his new job. Formula Renault to F3 was a significant leap and yet Piastri won his very first race in the third tier.
He seemed to learn at a rate of knots in a COVID-19 disrupted campaign, picking up the crucial aspects that would make himself a contender. Tyre management, consistency and speed were the key traits of his title-winning season and helped to mask the areas where he was less assured.
Despite never taking pole, Piastri claimed a further five podiums, including a second win, and finished out of the points just three times. He regularly found a way to scythe through the field.
Last year, our race pace was always our biggest strength,” he continues. “In Quali, as a team, we could be beaten more easily than in the races. Whereas in the races, we generally didn't go backwards.
“I haven't really thought about it consciously, but the experience (of reverse grids) probably helped me, having had those races where I needed to knuckle down and get past people.
“The tyres were quite a challenge in Qualifying because, in all of the series I’ve raced in before, you can run quite a few consecutive laps. In Formula Renault, you could do six or seven (laps) in a row without a problem. That is a difficult skill to learn as you go from being able to gradually get quicker and quicker, to having to hang it all out on one lap – it took some getting used to.”
After struggling last season, Piastri has now added Qualifying pace to his toolbox following some extensive work on that area during a test at Barcelona. Having never qualified first in F3, he’s now part of an exclusive club of drivers to have taken a hat-trick of poles in F2, alongside Leclerc, Russell and Albon.
“There hasn't been anything special that I have changed since last year,” says Piastri on the improvement. “Last year we had the pre-season test in Bahrain, but then we didn't have any testing for the rest of the year, so it was very difficult to focus on one-lap pace. In practice we didn’t run on new tyres, so your first lap on your tyres when they’re at their best, you’re still learning the circuit.
“Having more testing this year and being able to put a lot of effort into that has really helped. In Bahrain, our race pace was fine, but our qualifying pace was still lacking a bit, so in the test at Barcelona we really knuckled down and focused on Quali pace a lot. By the end of those three days, I was a lot happier with how the car was behaving in Qualifying and how I was delivering on that one lap.
“The next round in Monaco was the first weekend, since the start of last year in F3, where I was actually happy with my qualifying. Qualifying third, especially in Monaco, was a big confidence boost and sort of the last piece of the puzzle. On a personal point of view, that was quite a big moment in terms of getting my Qualifying mojo back, I guess.”
Qualifying third, especially in Monaco, was a big confidence boost and sort of the last piece of the puzzle
Consistency has been the hallmark of Piastri’s junior career and it’s a characteristic that should appeal to those in the top tier. The 20-year-old is also extremely calm – you’ll struggle to find any examples of him losing his temper over team radio.
Finishing inside of the top five in 11 out of 17 races, Piastri has missed out on the points just three times all year. He’s also finished on the podium in five out of six Feature Races and has the highest average finishing position of the grid.
Piastri admits that he’s surprised even himself.
“I thought that I could challenge for race wins, but I probably wasn't expecting to be so consistently at the front,” says Piastri. “Consistency is something that I’ve had as a trait throughout my career and this year I was expecting to be consistent in my results, but maybe a bit lower down.
“I think in the first half of the year, we’ve basically nailed everything at least once. We’ve got the Quali pace now, our race pace has been strong nine times out of 10 and we’ve been consistent.”
With two rounds to go, Piastri can technically wrap up the title in Jeddah if he finishes the weekend with a 66-point advantage over Zhou, though that would mean adding 30 more points to his tally than the UNI-Virtuosi racer - one feat the Australian hasn’t achieved so far this season.
“The trend this year has been to score very few points a round, or quite a lot,” he continues. “I don’t think there’s been an in between, so I think staying consistent will be the biggest thing, and I think we’ve done the best job of that in the field so far.
“I think we have proven that we can do everything right at least once. We just need to do all of that all of the time - I think that is the last thing that we can improve on.”