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



Oscar Piastri has just won the Formula 2 title as a rookie. However, despite securing his third championship in three categories in the past three years, he will not increase to run in the upper echelon in 2022.

This makes it easy to think that there must be something wrong with the single-seater scale, the Alpine team he’s a part of and Formula 1 itself as a result.

Piastri won the F3 title in 2020

To put what Piastri has accomplished into perspective, he won the Formula Renault Eurocup, FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 titles in three consecutive years and became the second driver in racing history to achieve such a feat en route. to the highest level in single-seater. . He is now the most successful member of the Alpine-related Pilot Development Program since its inception in 2002.

Fellow Alpine junior Guanyu Zhou slipped to third in the F2 standings only after being already confirmed as an Alfa Romeo driver for the 2022 F1 season. This team is part of the car conglomerate Stellantis and has different commercial pressures than the Renault group to which the Alpine F1 team and the sports car brand of the same name belong.

Right driver, right place, wrong time

Piastri joined what was then the Renault Sport Academy after winning the Eurocup 2019, entering Prema’s F3 roster for 2020 at the same time. When he met Renault in the UK to secure that spot and the “much needed financial support†for the race, he also signed on to join the management company run by fellow Australian and former F1 star Mark Webber.

Piastri introduced himself to the Renault factory team, before heading to Bahrain for pre-season F3 testing, returning to boarding school in the UK, then returning home to Australia with a crucial weekend when he was integrated into Renault for the season opening Australian Grand Prix. .

And then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

While the race only started in the summer, with a long period of factory shutdown, being stuck on the other side of the globe until then has done Piastri no favor. .

Eventually he returned to Europe and moved into his own apartment with another Renault junior. He missed the Tenerife training camp where the other Alpine juniors ended up in quarantine, but with key Alps staff 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 the spread of Covid-19 and denied members of the Junior Series the opportunity to mingle with the F1 fraternity. This reduced the number of new connections that could be made, giving an added advantage to those with the money – like Zhou – and made it difficult for juniors to keep up with F1 teams. A driver can give a strong impression just the way he spends time in the garage observing the action of F1, and that opportunity has largely been missed by Piastri.

Time change for Renault and Alpine

Piastri was able to focus on his F3 rookie campaign and quickly won the title, but just in terms of results it wasn’t spellbinding. He never qualified higher than the third and was only the fifth leading scorer in the second half of the season. By his own admission, two titles in two years were sealed thanks in particular to “an error of my rival” in the penultimate round.

Oscar Piastri, Mark Webber
Piastri had Mark Webber as a staunch defender

While Piastri did not have access to the F1 paddock, his manager Webber did so through his broadcast work with free UK Channel 4 coverage. But Webber’s “most important job”, according to Piastri, was helping him get the budget for a competitive Formula 2 seat for 2021. It was done before the end of the year, but it didn’t. could not promote his protégé as much as he would have liked because the mix in the F1 paddock was still very limited.

Over the winter, Renault decided to rename its F1 team to Alpine, and the power structure both within the team and within the Renault group as a whole changed dramatically. The renowned Alpine Academy was now torn in two directions between director Mia Sharizman’s ideal of creating future F1 drivers and the business preferences of Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi.

Meanwhile, a company that was heading towards an electric vehicle future had its fortunes in Australia as the pandemic unfolded.

Reanult withdrew most models from sale in the country, including the facelift Zoe electric car. Fewer than 70 Zoes were reportedly sold in the region over four years before it became the third vehicle in history to receive a zero-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Restrictive state taxes introduced this summer against electric vehicles (EVs) have only worsened the situation. The industry is nervous as Renault’s next models – one ironically named “Austral†– have yet to be confirmed for the Australian market. But declining demand for new cars and disrupted supply chains during the pandemic have made these types of commitments harder to make, while other markets are prioritized.

Renault has signed a supply deal with an Australian company to extract carbon-free lithium to power electric vehicle batteries, but the problem is that promoting F1 is against their interests.

Piastri plays the waiting game

With all of this, Piastri had limited potential as a marketing tool until 2021 compared to Zhou. The arrival of the very first Chinese F1 driver on the grid is a marketing victory in itself. The team’s desire to capitalize on the first real opportunity to have a Chinese driver in Formula 1 was mentioned as part of Alpine’s plans when launching his team. Next to their current roster of drivers shown on snow-filled posters with their French driver Esteban Ocon at the controls of an Alpine A110 sports car on the Monte-Carlo rally, there was a clear branding in which Alpine was already making a long-term commitment.

Guanyu Zhou, Alfa Romeo, Yas Marina, 2021
Preparing Guanyu Zhou for F1 has been a key objective for Alpine

One of the biggest challenges for Alpine at the start of 2021 was to recall Piastri to Europe after his visit to Australia in the New Year. The intermittent internet connection where he was quarantined made it difficult for him to make media engagements and more urgent work, but Piastri entered 2021 with a smart strategic approach. He now lives near the Enstone factory and from the start said he planned to do everything possible to get to know the F1 team and be popular in the factory in the same way that Nico Hulkenberg s was striving to prove his worth to Williams. years before.

Despite this approach and the on-track success that followed in F2, forming a strategy for Piastri’s future was not initially a priority. Christian Lundgaard would have been the top performer of the three in private F1 testing conducted by the Academy, but the Dane has taken to IndyCar for now. When the suggestion to send Piastri and Zhou to other F1 teams on loan was brought up, it led to a simple disagreement above at Alpine.

Some thought it was the right thing to do. Others involved did not want an Alpine driver to drive an F1 car without a Renault engine – which Zhou will now do at Alfa Romeo. The agony over it lasted long enough to rule out the prospect of loaning out their pilots anyway, despite very public comments that this was an active consideration in Alpine’s plan to bring in its juniors. in F1.

Ultimately, the only card Alpine had to play was to promote Piastri to reserve driver status in 2022, and that position only opened after Zhou left for Alfa. So of all the factors at play that determined Piastri’s path to F1, it was Zhou’s move to a Grand Prix seat that actually brought the Formula 2 champion closer to his ultimate goal, rather than denying him access to the world. championship.

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