New Formula One fans learned from the Netflix hit docudrama Drive to Survive that a lot of action in the sport happens away from the racetrack. The 2022 summer contractual spat between Oscar Piastri and Alpine has epitomized how many parallel storylines occur in the sport without requiring cars to race. The truth behind what happened with Piastri and others in the paddock may never be publicly known, but that, in some ways, enhances the story into an even better F1 fable for the ages. If you haven't kept up on how everything unfolded, here's your guide.
Who is Oscar Piastri?
Oscar Piastri hasn't raced in any championship in 2022, let alone Formula One. Yet, the recent driver contract controversy in the sport is centered around him. It's fair to wonder who this possible troublemaker is. Like Charles Leclerc and George Russell before him, Piastri stormed to the Formula 2 and Formula 3 titles in his first years of racing in each championship. The talent of Leclerc and Russell is evident both are in the hunt to be vice-champion in 2022 behind the all-conquering Max Verstappen, and they're both regular podium finishers this season.
Let's be clear; winning Formula 2 and 3 in a rookie season isn't common, so drivers who achieve such success will have teams view them as some of the hottest prospects for an F1 future. For example, some predecessors to Leclerc and Russell include Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, back in the days when the junior championships were called GP2 and GP3.
Alpine and Piastri have collaborated since the young Australian raced and won the Formula Renault Eurocup championship in 2019. Besides the Eurocup champion's trophy, Renault opened the door for Piastri to join the Renault Sport Academy in 2020. This later became the Alpine Academy, but the company's mission remained to nurture young talent for a seat in the Renault/Alpine Formula One team.
Alpine Academy's role in the saga
Every F1 driver academy has various functions in how they assist members. For example, some fully fund a racer's career to help them concentrate on being the quickest on track, while others require payment to join. There are also reported instances of both formats being valid within the same academy program. In comments by Piastri's manager, ex-F1 driver Mark Webber, the French manufacturer contributed roughly 20% of the required finances to the 21-year-old's recent career.
Irrespective of providing funding, most F1 driver academies offer members help with their physical training, media preparedness, time in state-of-the-art racing simulators, and access to the inner workings of a Formula One team. While and F2 or F3 seat has a set cost, there's no specific monetary value you can place on having access to an F1 teams facilities they are simply invaluable. There's little doubt about the benefits of an academy membership for F1 preparedness compared to, for example, 2021 driver Nikita Mazepin who paid his way into the sport.
Regardless of their financial contribution to F2 and F3 drives, Alpine has unquestionably helped Piastri grow over the past 30+ months in ways he wouldn't have without an F1 team connection. Their problem, however, wasn't Alpines academy; it was the possibility to graduate to the main Formula One team.
Alpine's Glass Ceiling
While Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes have brought a sizeable collection of drivers to F1 (over half the grid have been part of one of their academies at some point), they never placed a junior driver straight into their primary team in case they sink rather than swim. Instead, they position them elsewhere to learn the ropes. Red Bull had Toro Rosso, now AlphaTauri, for this very reason, while Ferrari and Mercedes made technical partnerships with other constructors. The collaborations with their rivals meant they could essentially 'loan' their racers out to Sauber, Haas, or Williams to assess them before deciding on their futures.
Since breaking up with Red Bull and McLaren as engine suppliers, Alpine doesn't have a partner in F1 to place any possible graduates. So, with only two F1 seats available and the drivers in them usually looking for multi-year stability, the timing of a junior driver becoming ready for F1 and having an existing Alpine F1 driver happy to vacate a seat was vital.
After Piastri's 2021 F2 championship win, the problem was apparent Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon had contracts to drive in 2022, so Piastri couldn't graduate. Sadly, a Formula 2 champion can't remain in the championship to defend the title they must go elsewhere, but Alpine had nowhere to put him.
The Spanish Minister of Mischief
Ocon signed a long-term deal with Alpine last year to keep him in the French squad until the end of 2024, but Alonso's future wasn't so clear. With his credentials as a double-champion for Renault in 2005 and 2006, Alonso wanted more stability than the reported one-year contract extension on the table from Alpine. Signing Alonso for either one or two years would mean that the talented Mr. Piastri wouldn't be racing for Alpine next season.
Alpine felt they were in a position of power with the choice of two well-regarded drivers to place next to Ocon for 2023, but Sebastian Vettel's retirement gave Alonso the perfect opportunity to find the long-term stability he craved. The Spaniard is well-known in Formula One for playing politics examples include triggering McLaren's Spygate scandal in 2007 and carefully choosing his team radio phrases to humiliate Honda in 2015. Replacing Vettel at Aston Martin allowed Alonso the chance to cause trouble.
With Alonso and Webber's long-time friendship, the rumors that Alonso had prior knowledge that Piastri and Webber signed with McLaren are pretty believable. The Australian master and apprentice combination of Webber and Piastri were unhappy that Alpine couldn't place their star junior driver in F1, so they took matters into their own hands. Knowing Alpine would lose himself and Piastri, Alonso appeared to have timed his announcement for maximum disruption.
Alpine thought they held all the cards, but they should have been more mindful of the potential actions of Formula One's best political poker player.
The Final Insult
With the news of Alonso's departure reaching them second-hand, Alpine quickly released a statement saying that Oscar Piastri would be racing for them in 2023. However, journalists soon noted that their reported new F1 driver hadn't given a quote in the press release a highly unusual occurrence. Shortly afterwards, Piastri made a bombshell announcement of his own via Twitter:
"I understand that, without my agreement, Alpine F1 have put out a press release late this afternoon that I am driving for them next year. This is wrong and I have not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023. I will not be driving for Alpine next year."
We now know that he had already signed for McLaren, but he couldn't go public on this until McLaren had agreed with and announced that Daniel Ricciardo will leave the team. McLaren thought they had a contract with Piastri, as did Alpine, so the lesser-spotted FIA Contract Recognition Board was tasked with deciding Piastri's fate.
Plenty of chest-beating by Alpine's Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer about Alpine's certainty of their valid contract and his role in Jenson Button's contractual dispute between Williams and BAR in 2004 introduced some doubt that McLaren had done the right thing. However, the CRB were unanimous in their decision that Alpine did not have a valid contract. That outcome hammered the final nail in the coffin of Alpine's already battered reputation.
What happens next?
After thinking they had the choice of two top-quality drivers for 2023, Alpine now faces slim pickings and currently have an empty seat next to Ocon for next season. Speculation about Frenchman Pierre Gasly joining the French team is cooling down. Unless Daniel Ricciardo rejoins the team he was quick to run away from two years ago, there aren't many good options certainly not to the same level of Alonso or Piastri's potential, at least.
Speaking of which, Alonso is confirmed to be at Aston Martin for two years, and Piastri will also be driving until 2024 at McLaren. Both drivers wanted to be in F1 next year and have found multi-year homes, seemingly making them the winners here.
While the whole saga has been entertaining, Im looking forward to the behind-the-scenes conversations Drive to Survive will provide next March on Netflix. For a show that excelled in its fourth season thanks to the bitter rivalry between 2021 championship antagonists Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, there has not been a title fight in 2022 worth covering. A contract dispute that embarrassed a global brand featuring one of F1's oldest stars and a new hopeful will no doubt keep enhance the popularity of the Netflix show.