Oscar Piastri, Guanyu Zhou, Yas Marina, 2021

How Zhou’s F1 promotion opens a key door for Piastri’s future

2022 F1 Season

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Oscar Piastri has just won the Formula 2 title as a rookie. However, despite securing his third championship in three categories over the last three years, he will not be stepping up to race in the top echelon in 2022.

That makes it easy to think there must be something wrong with the single-seater ladder, the Alpine team he’s part of and Formula 1 itself by that fact.

Piastri took the F3 title in 2020
To put into perspective what Piastri has achieved, he has won the Formula Renault Eurocup, FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 titles in three successive years and become the second driver in racing history to achieve such a feat en route to single-seaters’ top level. He’s now the most successful member of the driver development programme tied to Alpine since its 2002 creation.

Fellow Alpine junior Guanyu Zhou slipped to third in the F2 standings only after already being confirmed as an Alfa Romeo driver for the 2022 F1 season. That team is part of the Stellantis automotive conglomerate, and has different commercial pressures to that of the Renault Group that the Alpine F1 team and sportscar brand of the same name belong to.

Right driver, right place, wrong time

Piastri joined what was then the Renault Sport Academy after winning the 2019 Eurocup, slotting into Prema’s F3 line-up for 2020 at the same time. When in the UK meeting with Renault to secure that place and the “much-needed financial support” to race, he also signed to join the management company run by fellow Australian and former F1 star Mark Webber.

Piastri introduced himself to Renault’s factory team, before heading to Bahrain for F3 pre-season testing, back to boarding school in the UK and then heading home to Australia with a crucial weekend where he was embedded with Renault for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

And then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

While racing didn’t get underway until the summer, with a lengthy factory shutdown period, being stuck on the other side of the globe until then did Piastri no favours.

Eventually he got back to Europe and moved into his own flat with a fellow Renault junior. He missed the Tenerife training camp the other Alpine juniors ended up quarantined at, but with key Alpine personnel there it at least gave them the opportunity to bond a bit more.

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When the F3 season began, the paddocks were strictly segmented to reduce Covid-19’s spread, and denied those in the junior series the opportunity to mingle with the F1 fraternity. It reduced the number of new connections that could be made, putting those with the money – like Zhou – at a further advantage, and stopped juniors from shadowing the F1 teams. A driver can set a strong impression just from how they spend garage time observing the F1 action, and that opportunity largely passed Piastri by.

Changing times for Renault and Alpine

Piastri was able to focus on his rookie F3 campaign and promptly won the title, but in results alone it was not spellbinding. He never qualified higher than third, and was only the fifth-highest scorer over the season’s second half. By his own admission, two titles in two years were sealed thanks mainly to “a mistake from my rival” in the penultimate rounds.

Oscar Piastri, Mark Webber
Piastri has had Mark Webber as a keen advocate
While Piastri didn’t have the F1 paddock access, his manager Webber did through his broadcasting job with Channel 4’s free-to-air coverage in the UK. But Webber’s “most important work”, according to Piastri, was to help secure him the budget for a competitive seat in Formula 2 for 2021. That was done before the end of the year, but he couldn’t promote his protege as much as he would have liked as mixing in the F1 paddock was still heavily restricted.

Over the winter, Renault decided to rebrand its F1 team to Alpine, and the power structure both within the team and the wider Renault Group shifted significantly. The renamed Alpine Academy was now being tugged in two directions between director Mia Sharizman’s ideal as a creator of future F1 drivers and Alpine’s chief executive officer Laurent Rossi’s commercially-led preferences.

Meanwhile, a company that was heading towards an electric vehicle future was having its fortunes battered in Australia as the pandemic rolled on.

Reanult withdrew most models from sale in the nation, including the face-lifted Zoe electric car. Fewer than 70 Zoes were reported to have been sold in the region over four years before it became just the third vehicle in history to receive a zero-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Restrictive state taxes introduced this summer against electric vehicles (EVs) only made the situation worse. There are industry nerves down under as Renault’s next models – one ironically named the ‘Austral’ – are yet to be confirmed for the Australian market. But falling demand for new cars and disrupted supply chains during the pandemic has made those kinds of commitments harder to make, while other markets get prioritised.

Renault has signed a supply deal with an Australian company aiming for zero-carbon lithium extraction to provide for EV batteries, but the issue is that promoting F1 is at the opposite end to their interests.

Piastri plays the waiting game

With all this, Piastri has had limited potential as a marketing tool through 2021 compared to Zhou. Bringing China’s first ever F1 racer to the grid is a marketing win in itself. The team’s desire to capitalise on the first genuine opportunity to have a Chinese driver compete in Formula 1 was mentioned as part of Alpine’s plans in its team launch. Alongside their current driver line-up featuring in snow-filled posters with their French driver Esteban Ocon piloting an Alpine A110 sportscar on the Monte Carlo Rally – there was a clear brand image that Alpine was already committing to for the long-term.

Guanyu Zhou, Alfa Romeo, Yas Marina, 2021
Getting Guanyu Zhou F1-ready has been a key aim for Alpine
One of the biggest challenges for Alpine at the start of 2021 was to actually recall Piastri back to Europe after he visited Australia over the new year. The intermittent internet connection where he quarantined made it difficult for him to undertake media commitments and more pressing work, but Piastri came into 2021 with a smart, strategic approach. He now lives near the Enstone factory and, from the off, said he planned to do everything he could to get to know the F1 team and be popular on the factory floor in much the same way Nico Hulkenberg had endeavoured to prove his worth to Williams years before.

Despite that approach, and the on-track success that followed in F2, forming a strategy for Piastri’s future wasn’t initially a priority. Christian Lundgaard was said to have been the highest performing of the three in the private F1 tests the Academy conducts, but the Dane has taken himself to IndyCar for now. When the suggestion of sending Piastri and Zhou to other F1 teams on loan was raised, it led to a simple disagreement higher up at Alpine.

Some thought it was the right thing to do. Others involved didn’t want an Alpine driver racing an F1 car that did not have a Renault engine – something Zhou will now be doing at Alfa Romeo. The agonising over the matter went on for long enough that it killed off the prospect of loaning their drivers out anyway, despite very public comments that it was an active consideration in Alpine’s plan to get its juniors into F1.

Eventually, the only card Alpine had left to play was to promote Piastri to reserve driver status in 2022, and that vacancy only opened up once Zhou had exited for Alfa. So of all the factors at play that have determined Piastri’s path to the F1 sidelines, it’s Zhou’s move into an grand prix seat that has actually enabled the Formula 2 champion to get closer to his ultimate goal, rather than deny him a way into the world championship.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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26 comments on “How Zhou’s F1 promotion opens a key door for Piastri’s future”

  1. 0 ENCAP stars! That basically means opening the door will kill you.

    What are Renault doing?

    1. @falken as noted by others, the protection systems for those within the car were less heavily criticised, and it is worth noting that there are some caveats with the testing.

      NCAP heavily penalised Renault because the Zoe that was sent didn’t have either lane assist fitted or Autonomous Emergency Braking for vulnerable road users fitted as standard (it’s worth noting that those systems are available for the Zoe as options), whilst also not fitting fatigue monitoring systems.

      To some extent, the low test score is more because of the particular model chosen – i.e. the version with the smallest number of available automatic safety systems – and because NCAP has now changed the testing criteria to put a high emphasis on automatic systems, rather than the more traditional criteria that just looked at the passive protection measures.

      That change in standards is quite significant – the same car which is rated at zero stars now was, back in 2013, rated as a 5 star car by NCAP back then, so it’s not as if the car has suddenly become dangerous overnight.

  2. 0 stars is not THAT bad ;-)
    NCAP gets stricter over time (instead of doing the horrible A++++ trick). Still behaves better than a small car with stars did a decade ago. Not having advanced collision avoidance is one of the reasons for the low rating.
    See: https://youtu.be/HiOs1mCMH4Q

  3. In essence, a lot hinges on how good the 2022 Alpine is. If slow, Alonso will be off, and Piastri will get his seat in 2023.

    1. Could still get a seat in 2023 even if Alonso stays.

    2. If Lewis retires at the end of 2022, chances are that Esteban goes to Mercedes to be George’s wingman, leaving a spot open for Piastri.

    3. On the other hand if Fernando can win the championship with Alpine (very unlikely I know) he might retire from the top and Piastri gets promoted into a championship contending car for 2023.
      IMO a lot also depends on the actual performances of Ocon and Alonso. If they are closely matched again I doubt the lineup will change into ’23, however if one dominates the other it could work significantly in Piastri’s favour.

  4. “three successive years and become the second driver in racing history to achieve such a feat”

    Robin Frijns won F-BMW, FR2.0, WSR3.5 in successive years. Is there someone else who managed this?

    1. When Piastri won his FR EC he was in his second year there. So he technically didn’t go from one category to another in a year. But I cannot think anyone else who has done 3/3.

  5. Is Alpine making excuses? Oscar did not just win the f2 championship, he dominated it! World champs in any sport not only have loads of talent, they have composure and incredible focus. Oscar has this! Loads of potential. I really hope Alpine look after him as f1 fans want him on the f1 grid sooner rather than later.

    1. Maybe because he isn’t as talented as his success suggests?

      Christian Lundgaard was said to have been the highest performing of the three in the private F1 tests the Academy conducts

      1. Piastri hasn’t even been in the Academy 2 years yet! and he is their most successful jr driver. Both Lungaard and Zhou have had more experience in a Renault F1 car not exactly equal footing to start with in testing Piastri first time late last year. Lungaard scored 50 odd points this year in an ART car that won F2 in 2019.

      2. @armchairexpert McLaren’s analysis also showed that Magnussen was going to be a better driver than Perez, and yet one is driving for Red Bull while the other was left without an F1 seat. What has Lundgaard achieved in F2 this season? You can’t base everything on a single test they did over a year ago. You don’t dominate F2 in the way that Piastri did without being an exceptional talent. 5 poles (in a row) from 8 races and 4 feature race wins (in a row again) says a lot. Even if what you say is true, I’d take someone is able to achieve success over talent any day.

    2. Alpine didn’t give Zhou the F1 seat, they already have Ocon and Alonso.

      But F2 & Alfa Romeo preferred the extra money from Zhou, so Piastri never stood a chance.

      Same as F1 wanted “boring” Hamilton/Merc dominance to end, that’s why they changed car regs for 2021 to make F1 “more exciting” and made Masi change his call to one that would break multiple rules but be “more exciting,” even though the initial call of no cars unlapping would have had the least certain outcome.

      F1 knew the horrendous call would 100% alter the outcome of the entire championship because a Max title is more profitable.

      Webber, Doohan, Piastri and Ricciardo championships will never be profitable for F1.

      1. MadAdam81

        and made Masi change his call to one that would break multiple rules but be “more exciting,” even though the initial call of no cars unlapping would have had the least certain outcome.

        No call until the track could be cleared eventually and then ordering all cars to unlap themselves instead of only five of them, as they’d remain bunched together, would probably result in the same outcome without “breaking multiple rules”.
        And finishing the rcae behind the SC would be the most predictable outcome of all possibilities. Teams had opted against it. The outcry regarding this part is more because Hamilton/Mercedes lost, as if they’re somewhat entitled to an eternal dominance.

  6. My understanding is the rules of F2 basically bar the Season champion from competing in their racing series again. Since F1 is the reason why everyone is racing in F2, it then puts an onus upon F1 to employ the F2 season Champion that year. We have this situation develop every year, where the F2 champion has difficulty getting a seat because all the F1 seats have already been contracted out.
    It might be better if the F2 season started 6 months earlier, so when it finished there might (at least in theory) be seats still available. For example, say the F2 season concluded with the start of the F1 “summer break”, then there should still be seats available.
    Also, one can’t but help suspect the teams need to agree to each pay a “bond” that they will employ the F2 season champion, which is pooled, and then paid out either to the team that employs the F2 champion or to the champion herself or himself.

    1. Not every F2 champion is worthy of an F1 seat. If you’ve won it in your third year or more of F2 then it really doesn’t carry much weight.

      1. How can you be the F2 season champion and not be worthy of an F1 seat? So it took you three years to do it, why is that bad?

    2. @drycrust There are a few issues. Firstly, like Tom mentions, not every F2 champion is worthy of an F1 seat. And the track record of F2 drivers getting a seat in F1 is quite strong, 6 of the last 7 GP2/F2 champions have made it to the F1 grid (Palmer, Vandoorne, Gasly, Leclerc, Russell and Schumacher) and it is likely Piastri will as well. The biggest hurdle facing Piastri more than seat availability is that Alpine doesn’t have any partner teams. Had Piastri been in the Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari academies (even Sauber and Williams), there is a high chance he would have been on the grid in 2022. But with the emergence of all these driver academies, junior drivers are usually limited in which teams they can sign for in the first place. And it’s even more limited when your team (Alpine) only has 2 seats it can influence. Piastri would never realistically be able to join Alpha Tauri or Alfa Romeo as those teams would not want a driver that retains links to Alpine.

  7. With Ocon having a contract until 2024, that leads to Alonso being shown the door after next year. I think that makes sense, Alonso gets to try the new cars and see if he wants to look for a seat elsewhere, and Ocon can be a solid senior for performance comparison who’s very consistent.

    If Alonso stays at Alpine things start to look very bad for Piastri. Stranger things have happened in F1.

    1. @skipgamer
      Another seat might be available at a different team in 2023, and ideally it should be in a brand new team (like possibly Audi) increasing the grid to 22 cars. The number of pay drivers is increasing too much for only 20 seats in total, some of them should use their money to help found another (minimally competitive) new F1 team.

  8. Hopefully Piastri will get a seat in 2023.

  9. Piastri seems to be a very fast and relatively clean racer when he is fighting for the championship. However, after he won the championship, he had one of his worst races in F2. Two strange moves, crashes, and a penalty. The guy still needs to learn.

    1. He’s a kid right – not like he raced F1 for 5 years and then just ran people off track or brake checked them. Sure he pushed poorly in the second race but then backed up with a win in the feature race.

      1. mrspiastri

        He’s a kid right – not like he raced F1 for 5 years and then just ran people off track or brake checked them.

        And those who does this sort of thing after more than 10 years in Formula 1 and multiple championships won? Have you something to say about that?

    2. Sviat

      However, after he won the championship, he had one of his worst races in F2. Two strange moves, crashes, and a penalty. The guy still needs to learn.

      Your bias has clearly made you keen to draw definitve conclusions from temporary/specific situations. That’s why you usually reach wrong conclusions in the end.

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