‘Not like a rookie’: How McLaren glimpsed Piastri’s potential in curtailed debut

2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

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He may have only had 18 minutes to prove himself in qualifying, and his race only lasted 13 laps, but Oscar Piastri was able to impress McLaren with his Formula 1 debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Friday practice marked Piastri’s first time driving an F1 car on a grand prix weekend, and he placed 12th and 15th in the two sessions. He improved to ninth place in Saturday’s session, where he was McLaren’s fastest driver, but in qualifying did not progress out of Q1 as he was only 18th fastest and 0.449 seconds slower than his team mate Lando Norris who scraped into Q2.

McLaren did not go into the weekend with high hopes for the performance of the MCL60, so Piastri’s lowly position was not a failure to meet expectations. The team believed he had the pace to rival Norris for a Q2 spot.

“We are very pleased with what we saw in qualifying, because apart from the big oversteer at corner two – which meant he lost basically the possibility to go in Q2 in a single corner – in some other corners he was a match for Lando, which is really very encouraging in terms of pure speed,” said McLaren’s team principal Andrea Stella.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
One costly error in qualifying set Piastri back
His turn two mistake meant Piastri was slowest of all in sector one of the lap in qualifying. However he was only 0.244s slower than Norris’s best in sector two and 0.150s off in sector three. Last year, the equivalent gaps Norris had over his previous team mate Daniel Ricciardo in those two sectors was 0.507s and 0.227s.

In the race, Piastri immediately moved up the order, rising to 16th by the first corner. As other drivers made their first pit stops he made up further places, and was in 11th before he headed to the pits himself for the first time. However that trip marked the end of Piastri’s race due to an electrical problem.

However that brief run gave more encouraging pointed for McLaren. “Oscar keeps improving,” Stella said. “The first stint he has done in the race is by far the best long run he has done so far.

“He keeps improving every session he does. It would have been good to complete the first race and to be even more ready for the second. But we take the positive, we take the fact that he seems to keep learning and learning very rapidly.”

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Stella praised the “methodical and progressive approach” Piastri has taken, and also mentioned where he wants to see the rookie improve based on his first race weekend with the team.

“It’s the overall race craft that we need to develop, but not because there’s any lack of talent, it’s just time in the car, really,” Stella said.

Piastri’s early retirement, and Norris’ own reliability problem that meant he had to pit early on lap 10, there is only a small sample set of lap times from the race to compare the pair’s pace.

Norris was faster than Piastri in eight of the nine comparable laps, with the latter only going faster on lap four. However the gap between the pair and the consistency of Piastri’s pace in that short time period backs up Stella’s praise of the stint.

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Piastri was on average 0.414s per lap slower, with that impacted by what was happening around the two on track as well as their pace in cleaner air, and the limited fluctuation of both drivers’ lap times showed that they were able to maintain a pace even while battling with other cars.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Piastri’s race pace gave McLaren cause for encouragement
From lap two to five, Piastri’s times were all within 0.171s of each other. Over the next three laps his pace slowed from the 1’40s to the 1’41s but the consistency continued, just 0.184s covering those lap times. He then set two near-identical 1’41.5s laps, and his pace began to improve before his race-ending trip to the pits.

“I thought it was going well and I was pretty happy up until we stopped,” said Piastri after his debut came to an early end.

Although Norris maintained a faster pace until his own pit stop, there was a very similar variability in successive lap times to his inexperienced team mate, an encouraging sign for Piastri.

Piastri had already impressed the team’s engineers ahead of his grand prix debut. McLaren’s technical director James Key praised the quality of his feedback and compared it favourably with the input from his more experienced team mate.

“He’s impressed us tremendously,” said Key, who spent several years at Red Bull’s junior F1 team Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). “I’ve worked with a lot of rookies in my time, and there is a real range of talents and attributes which each of them bring. Some are mentally just naturally quick, but they’re not so good with their feedback. Some have both, some are excellent with feedback but need to do a bit of work on track and so on.

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“Oscar’s technical knowledge is excellent, his feel for the car is incredibly precise. He mirrors much of how Lando talks about the car, so that’s really good for us.”

Piastri’s input is more like that of a more experienced F1 driver, said Key. “It’s not as though you have a rookie driver, in many respects, talking about the car, because his feeling is extremely precise. That’s allowed us to pin down very early in winter testing exactly what we need to do for the further generation development work to [address] some of the comments we’ve had.”

Key said the team is “super impressed” with what it’s seen of Piastri so far. “He’s very much a team player. He speaks very openly about his thoughts.”

“We’ve been really impressed. I think mature beyond his years is maybe overused, but definitely that’s the case with Oscar.”

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2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

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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...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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2 comments on “‘Not like a rookie’: How McLaren glimpsed Piastri’s potential in curtailed debut”

  1. Oscar Piastri was able to impress McLaren with his Formula 1 debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix

    Tell us you don’t have high expectations of yourself and your employees without telling us you don’t have high expectations of yourself and your employees.

  2. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    15th March 2023, 13:53

    Well, let’s not pile the pressure on the kid. McLaren has a sterling record of pushing out drivers starting with Checo, Magnussen, Vandoorne, Ricciardo and to some extent even Lewis.

Comments are closed.