‘Finding my voice’: Oscar Piastri adjusts to F1 fame as he seeks hometown success

MELBOURNE, Australia — Last April, Oscar Piastri was preparing to fulfill a lifelong dream in only his third Formula One race.

The rookie was racing in the Australian Grand Prix for the first time, just 15 minutes from where he grew up in Melbourne, where he could hear the engines of the cars at Albert Park from his back garden.

Yet at the track, finding huge numbers of Piastri fans took work. Even as the rookie picked up the baton from Daniel Ricciardo as the only Australian on the grid, McLaren’s struggles and his turbulent final year before reaching F1 meant there wasn’t much of a Piastri buzz.

“People sort of knew who I was,” he told The Athletic. “But not that many people.”

Twelve months on, things could not be more different. After capitalizing on McLaren’s upswing in form through 2023, Piastri returns to Melbourne in a position that could see him do more than rival the returning Ricciardo’s status as the fan favorite. Having cemented his position as Australia’s next F1 star, he could make history by becoming the first Aussie to score a podium in a home race.

Turning Melbourne papaya

Piastri had the advantage of going into his first Australian Grand Prix without much weight on his shoulders as McLaren’s on-track struggles put him largely out of the spotlight.

Even though he wasn’t racing, Ricciardo remained the biggest draw for fans as he returned to the paddock as a Red Bull reserve driver and started a bid for his eventual F1 comeback. Valtteri Bottas, Australia’s adopted son after making it his second home through his relationship with professional cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, leaned fully into the bit by turning up with a mullet, bad tan lines and flip-flops. The quieter, younger Piastri was arguably the least popular of the three ‘home’ drivers despite being the only Australian actually racing in Melbourne.

Piastri recovered from a Q1 exit to finish eighth through the late-race chaos — only 12 drivers reached the checkered flag — to snare his first F1 points. “We were not particularly competitive, so there was a decent amount of pressure and criticism on the team,” Piastri said. “To leave Melbourne with my first points was a big relief, even if there was some luck involved, it was still nice to get them on the board.”

In early July at the British Grand Prix, Piastri saw things change. The upgrade McLaren delivered in Austria a week earlier transformed its on-track fortunes, allowing Lando Norris to lead the early stages of the race before finishing second. Piastri crossed the line fourth after a unluckily-timed safety car denied him a likely podium.

Piastri also found out at Silverstone what it was like to have huge fan support for the first time. “The memory of having British fans chanting my name, that’s something I will never forget,” he said. “That was definitely the weekend where I was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is a bit different, and life has changed a bit.’ There was much more recognition from that point onwards.”

Third-placed McLaren's Australian driver Oscar Piastri celebrates on the podium at the end of the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix at the Suzuka circuit, Mie prefecture on September 24, 2023. (Photo by Peter PARKS / AFP) (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

Piastri notched his first podium at Suzuka, finishing the Japanese GP in third place. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

The Australian notched his first F1 podium in September at Suzuka, where he finished third, before winning the sprint at the next round in Qatar. It remains the only defeat in a race format Max Verstappen has suffered in the last six months. McLaren ended 2023 regularly finishing as the second-quickest team after Red Bull, with Piastri rarely far behind the more experienced, 24-year-old Norris. He finished P9 in the drivers’ championship.

Piastri knew the added fan interest was an inevitable consequence of being more competitive. “When you’re more towards the front and closer to winning stuff, people pay more attention,” he said. He picked out that heightened fan interest as one of the greatest adjustments that has come with life on the F1 grid.

“I had at least an insight into what the world of F1 was going to be like, but you can’t get an insight into what being famous is going to be like,” Piastri said. “It kind of just hits you, and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.”

He’s taken it in his stride. Ranging from his Jim Halpert-esque reaction to the jet pack stunt man crashing in Austria to his struggles with the entry door to McLaren’s factory in the latest season of “Drive to Survive”, Piastri isn’t one to take himself too seriously off the track. He’s enormously likable and, refreshingly within F1, rather normal. It translates into the cockpit as well. Even in the heat of on-track battles, he never loses his cool, keeping his head in a way more experienced drivers sometimes struggle to.

Piastri is ready for that to hit harder than ever in Melbourne this weekend. “Hopefully there’s even more papaya in the stands this year,” he said. “It’s going to be quite different this year, I think.”

‘A much more mature driver’

Even if Piastri wasn’t able to fight toward the front until the second half of last season, there was never any doubt over his potential. His performances through last year justified that to the point where McLaren moved to secure his long-term future, announcing a fresh contract in October. His cool, calm approach impressed everyone at Woking, especially team principal Andrea Stella, who even drew comparisons to F1 greats Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso last year.

Yet there were always things Piastri was never going to know about F1 until he reached the top level, leaving natural room for improvement. One thing he identified was the impact he can have on a car as a driver, helping shape setup or development direction in a way that is not possible in junior categories, where all drivers get the same equipment.

“You’ve got a lot of weight behind your voice,” Piastri said. “You’ve got to be productive in how you use that, and constructive as well.”

He’s enjoyed the team-building aspect of F1 at McLaren, especially as it plots a path back toward the top of F1. “It’s not just the pinnacle of driving, it’s the pinnacle of engineering and everything in Formula One,” Piastri said, admitting it is “natural to be a bit shy and reserved, which is kind of how I am anyway” when settling into a new environment. “I think I’m finding my voice a little bit more now, which is nice.”

It’s a change Stella has also noticed, highlighting the greater “self-awareness” that Piastri holds as an F1 sophomore. Piastri now knows what he must do to get the most out of a car, adjusting his driving style to suit the behavior of the MCL38 without the inevitable added time it takes as a rookie. “This awareness that I refer to from a driving point of view, I can also see in his interaction with the engineers and with the rest of the team,” said Stella. “He’s a much more mature driver.”

Piastri and Norris are locked in together at McLaren until at least the end of 2026, something the Australian said was “a nice foundation to build the team on” and gives him reason to believe the growth will only continue.

“Lando has been there for years already, because he’s old,” Piastri joked, quickly adding: “He’s going to give me s— for that, he’ll give it straight back! But no, it’s nice to have that stability for everybody I think.

“We worked very well in the first 12 months together. I’m sure that will continue.”

Home success

No Australian has finished on the podium in the Australian Grand Prix since it became an F1 world championship round, in 1985. Ricciardo had the joy of briefly ending that drought in 2014, when he finished second and stood on the podium at Albert Park, only to later be disqualified over a fuel flow breach.

Piastri arguably has the best chance to make it happen since Ricciardo was last an F1 front-runner with Red Bull in 2018. McLaren’s start to this year has been solid if unspectacular, trailing Red Bull and a small step behind Ferrari and Mercedes for pace. But Piastri’s fourth-place finish in Jeddah two weeks ago shows he could be in the podium conversation.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 01: Oscar Piastri of Australia and McLaren greets fans on the Melbourne Walk prior to final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Australia at Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit on April 01, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

“I had at least an insight into what the world of F1 was going to be like, but you can’t get an insight into what being famous is going to be like,” Piastri said.

What is not up for debate is his status as the great hope for home success in Melbourne. Ricciardo may be back on the grid and is sure to soak up the vibes of making good on the intention to return he vocalized 12 months ago. Yet so long as RB remains firmly in the bottom half of the F1 field and as he struggles to outpace teammate Yuki Tsunoda, the low-paying points surely remain Ricciardo’s ceiling. The same goes for the tenuously-included Bottas, who at least is having more fun with Australian stereotypes in the lead-up to this weekend.

A born and bred Melburnian, Piastri would also know what his success would mean to both city and country. He grew up watching his beloved Richmond Tigers playing Aussie Rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He reveled in Australia’s thrashings of the touring England cricket team in the Ashes test matches, and saw how the city embraced tennis’ Australian Open each January. “That’s just in our way of living, our love for any kind of sport,” he said.

It makes him all the prouder to be flying the flag for Australia this weekend, particularly alongside Ricciardo this year. “Having two Aussies on the grid I think is a pretty awesome thing,” Piastri said. “There’s never that many of us in F1, but to have two of us in there at the same time is pretty cool.

“Hopefully, we can have some success.”

(Lead image of Oscar Piastri: Gongora/NurPhoto, Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic)

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