Oscar Piastri didn’t have to find his F1 dream. It came to him first.
East Brightonian Piastri grew up less than 20 kilometers from Albert Park, which, as anyone in greater metropolitan Melbourne will tell you, is more than within striking distance of the furious scream of the old V8 engines of yesteryear.
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“The first memories I have of Albert Park are from before I attended the race,” Piastri told the In the Fast Lane podcast. “I could actually hear the cars from my house, which was a long way away.
“The first memories I have are watching them on TV and then running out to the backyard and hearing them.”
The 2022 Australian Grand Prix isn’t simply Piastri’s home race; it’s his home turf.
But next weekend the Alpine reserve and Australia’s next Formula 1 driver will still be frustratingly restricted to listening only, albeit now with a trackside view.
Piastri’s travails have been well documented. Despite winning successive titles in Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3 and Formula 2, he was pipped to F1 by the man he vanquished for his last junior title, the better funded Zhou Guanyu.
There is a heartening kernel to the story, which is that Alpine is so convinced of Piastri’s ability that it isn’t willing to risk losing him to a rival team on a loan agreement, as it’s done with Zhou. But the result is the same: he won’t be on the grid in Melbourne and almost certainly won’t be racing all year.
For a man with his competitive streak, having been racing since 2014 and having won four of his last seven F2 races on his way to the championship, it’s difficult to swallow.
“That’s something I’m trying to deal with,” he said. “Being at the first race weekend in Bahrain reignited that competitive spirit, and I can’t lie, it was a little disappointing to watch everyone going racing whilst I was watching.
“It was difficult at times, and I’m trying to keep myself occupied and give myself things to focus on.
“Sim racing is a good one – it’s not quite the same, but it’s pretty nuts how close sim racing can get these days… so that’s my main way of keeping my competitive side going at the moment.
“But the thing I’ve got going for me is that I have those championships on my CV, and they don’t disappear.
“The saying is, ‘You’re only as good as your last race’, and I won my last race, so I’m trying to focus on that!”
But 2022 won’t be a write-off for Piastri – far from it.
Alpine intends to have him full-time on the grid in 2023, and to have him hit the ground running he’ll spend this year observing from up close how all-time great Fernando Alonso and race-winner Esteban Ocon do business in the tightest midfield in years.
It’ll be an invaluable unguarded glimpse behind the scenes before he becomes an active rival to whoever he partners next season.
“The first one for me at the race weekends is to try to learn as much as I can from the race drivers,” Piastri said. “With Fernando and Esteban there, they’re two very good guys for that.
“Especially Fernando – he’s been through a lot of very different rule changes before, so it’s been very eye-opening watching how he’s been going about that.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to learn from those guys and really ask them questions to find out as much as I can.
“For me personally that’s probably the main area I want to develop as much as I can, learn how they go about things.”
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And of course there’s always the prospect of a sudden call-up to a race seat in the event Alonso or Ocon – or Daniel Ricciardo or Lando Norris, per a recent agreement with McLaren – can’t compete.
It’s the era of the reserve driver, with an unusually high 10 reserve call-ups since 2020. Indeed Nico Hulkenberg helmed Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin for the first two races of this season thanks to a COVID-19 diagnosis, having arrived on the Friday morning of first practice in Bahrain to take the wheel.
The call could come at any time, which means Piastri must treat his year on the sidelines as though he were racing while at the same time bracing every Sunday to see the grid power away without him.
“I don’t have the luxury of having a few weeks or a month to prepare myself, it can be a matter of a couple of days, a couple of hours,” he said. “I have to try to keep myself as physically ready as possible, which is challenging without driving.
“I’m just trying to keep myself physically ready and preparing as if I’m going to be needed every weekend.
“In my testing program we’ve got in the 2021 car, we’ve got a big program lined up, so that’s where I can really hone my skills on the F1-specific stuff in terms of driving.
“It’s pretty much the only driving I’ll do for the year, and that’s where I can hone my skills.”
But regardless of the likelihood that he’ll spend his first home grand prix watching from the garages, walking into the F1 paddock in Melbourne will still be a milestone achieved on what is surely an inexorable rise to the grid.
“I’m not on the grid, so it’s not fully my first (home) grand prix, but to have that experience as even a reserve driver is going to be pretty special,” he said.
“I’ve seen it’s a sellout crowd. I’m obviously a lot more involved in the F1 team now and the F1 paddock as well, so I’m really looking forward to it. “
And at least he’ll be in his own backyard.