Copy of 2024-04-21T072448Z_291489706_UP1EK4L0KL915_RTRMADP_3_MOTOR-F1-CHINA-1714661358025
McLaren's Oscar Piastri in action during the Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai International Circuit on April 21. Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: Oscar Piastri may no longer be a first-season rookie on the Formula One grid but he still gets a thrill from lining up alongside the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, admitting in an interview with AFP that “it’s cool” to race against them.

After serving as reserve driver for Alpine in 2022, where he was working alongside Alonso, the 23-year-old Australian made his F1 debut in a McLaren last season and immediately found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the greats of the sport.

“I grew up watching Lewis and Fernando on TV in the early 2010s,” he told AFP. “I didn’t watch the start of Fernando’s career because I wasn’t alive but it’s cool to race against those guys.

“When you’re on the track, of course, they’re just another driver with a helmet on, they’re just another person you’re trying to beat.

“But I think for me working alongside Fernando in 2022 and trying to learn as much as I could from what he was doing was quite an eye-opener.

“And yeah, I certainly learned a lot from him in that season.”

Piastri is underselling himself. While Max Verstappen and Red Bull were gorging themselves at the front of the pack, the former Formula 3 (2020) and Formula 2 (2021) world champion was chalking off the landmarks.

He picked up his first points at home in Melbourne in his third grand prix, scored his first podium in Japan and won the sprint in the following race in Qatar where he also finished second behind Verstappen, of course, in the main event.

“On the whole it was a good first season,” he says. “But still some things to work on which I think I’m making good progress on this year. But still some improvements to go.”

Top of the wish list would be a first grand prix victory although in the face of continued Red Bull domination this season, Piastri remains a pragmatist, happy to put the needs of the team ahead of his own.

“Let’s be honest, I’m not going to win the world championship this year,” he shrugs.

Piastri heads to this weekend’s rumble in Miami sixth in the standings having scored points in every race thus far, with teammate Lando Norris just 11 in front of him.

“Whether I finish fifth or sixth or wherever it might be in the driver standings, I’m not that fussed,” he insists.

“But if I can make a difference to the constructors championship, then that’s a big focus for me.”

‘Very enjoyable’

Last season, with Norris in the other car, McLaren finished fourth in the constructors behind Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari.

They are now third, ahead of Mercedes and Aston Martin.

“I think if we can finish the year in third place that would be good compared to the years previous but I think that’s the lowest we would accept now, given what we were capable of at the end of last season,” says Piastri.

“But we want to set our sights on the front.”

While still looking for the consistency to make himself a genuine contender on race day, Piastri revels in his new role as a Formula One driver.

“At the end of the day, I’m an F1 driver because I love racing cars,” he says. “I started racing because I love going fast and trying to beat other people.”

And he still pinches himself when he stops to think about the progress he has made.

“It’s been a very enjoyable 18 months,” he says.

“In some situations, you kind of realise how special it is.

“In Saudi Arabia last year I qualified on the same row as Lewis in my second F1 race. When I was lining up on the grid I didn’t notice at all but then someone sent me a photo afterwards of the TV graphic of me and Lewis side by side.

“And yeah, that was quite special to look at afterwards. So that’s definitely cool.”