IT'S HARD TO THINK OF A TIME in Formula 1 more eventful than what unfolded as we wrote this story. For F1 fans in Australia, the lead-up to the 2024 season felt like that GTA: San Andreas-inspired meme, “Ah Shit, Here We Go Again”. Guenther Steiner sacked; Andretti’s team bid rejected; Hamilton going to Ferrari; Christian Horner under investigation; alleged corruption surrounding the Singapore GP; new sprint weekend formats; a potential 30-race season; Alpha Tauri rebranding to ‘Visa Cash App RB’; Sauber’s naming partner Stake caught up in legal issues... the list goes on. But there’s at least one man relaxed, refreshed and unbothered: Australian F1 driver Oscar Piastri.

You see, ahead of his 2023 rookie year, the 22-year-old McLaren driver was at the centre of his own silly-season drama. After graduating from Alpine’s Driver Academy and taking a year off racing to sit on the sidelines as the shared BWT Alpine and McLaren reserve driver (a painful move for any racer), he made a shock switch to drive for McLaren (which had already dropped a huge payout to end Daniel Ricciardo’s contract early), but not before Alpine pre-emptively announced Piastri’s appointment.

The young driver took to X (formerly Twitter) to deny signing any agreement, forcing Alpine to retract the statement while a legal scuffle ensued. The event caused a whole lot of carbon-fibre pearl-clutching and accusations of disloyalty from Alpine due to Piastri’s history with the team. The young Australian, stuck in the middle of it all, labelled the situation “bizarre and upsetting”. Ultimately, it was very embarrassing for Alpine—they had a chance to sign the first and only driver to win the three championship series below F1 consecutively, and fumbled. No wonder the team was emotional. Such are the cut-throat ways that the elite sport operates behind the scenes.

Well, for anyone aware of Piastri’s impeccable junior-driver record who still dared to ask, ‘Why him?', Piastri quickly proved himself to be worth the fight. And if some of the most experienced and influential names in motorsport are to be believed, the Melbourne-born driver is destined to be a world champion.

“From the beginning, there’s always been a passion for cars in my family,” Piastri says of his Brighton upbringing. “My mum’s dad and my dad’s dad were mechanics, my dad’s business is in the car industry and we would always watch motorsport. But I’m the first one in my family to race as a career.”

Oscar Piastri Esquire Australia
Jacket, POA, by Emporio Armani; shirt and tie, both POA, both by Giorgio Armani. Photography: James Anastasi. Styling: Catherine Hayward.

No doubt you’ve heard the stories of Piastri’s European counterparts jumping into karts before they started school, and while Piastri did take up karting around age nine, it was a more unconventional entry point into the sport that seemed to embed a technical perspective into the young driver’s psyche: remote-control car racing. “When I was six, my dad got me a remote-control car and I started racing that for a few years,” he says. “Racing remote-controlled cars gave me an understanding of certain things. I knew what a racing line was. I knew what some setup things did. I had a bit of an idea. It’s just a bit different to actually sitting in it, so that was the biggest thing to get used to,” he adds. “But I definitely started karting later than most and it has been quite the journey since.”

By 14, Piastri had decided to pursue racing seriously and made the move to the UK, where he attended school on a sports scholarship and started to compete around Europe. “Once I moved to Europe, because I was moving away from the life I knew, my family and friends, there was a lot more at stake from that point on,” he says. “That’s when it became serious, and I knew I wanted to race cars for a living. That was the number-one goal.”

He points out that while one can certainly have a racing career in Australia, there are only a small number of people getting paid to race cars back home. “Every racing driver starts out as a kid who dreams of being an F1 driver. And unfortunately, just because of geography, you can’t really become one by staying in Australia. So that was a necessary step to try and make that dream a reality. Once I moved, I set my sights on doing the best I could, and F1 was the dream.”

Oscar Piastri Esquire Australia
Trench coat, shirt, pants and shoes, all POA, all by Burberry. Photography: James Anastasi. Styling: Catherine Hayward.

“OSCAR’S FOCUS was very evident very early,” says Mark Webber, a great of Australian motorsport who needs very little introduction, and who also happens to be Piastri’s manager. “He set high standards for himself. I liked the reserved nature of how he goes about his profession—you know, he likes to do his work—and that minimal fuss and high level of focus were attractive to Ann [Neal, Webber’s partner in life and business, and also his former motorsport manager] and I.”

Neal and Webber have been working with Piastri since his early junior days, and as a former F1 legend himself, Webber is well placed to understand the demands the sport places on athletes today. “I think it was pretty evident in his first year,” he says. “Before last year, a lot of people didn’t know Oscar. But, of course, they got to know him better through his post-session interviews, the way he handles himself and just how measured, focused and thorough he is.” In his F1 rookie year, Piastri’s achievements were nothing to sniff at—he was the first rookie to lead an F1 race in more than a decade; the first to take a podium since 2017; and he was awarded Rookie of the Year (for the second time in his racing career, no less).

Oscar Piastri quote

In today’s world of motorsport, there are more channels than ever offering exposure to the sport via things like simulated (sim) racing, grassroots racing clubs and a multitude of open-wheel racing categories globally. It’s important to point out that the sport is not lacking in emerging talent, yet there are only 20 spots on the grid. So, what is it about Piastri as a talent that makes him stand out to the point where a giant like McLaren Racing would put up a fight and invest in the rookie?

“The pedigree he showed in his junior categories building up to Formula 1 was exceptional,” says Webber. “And it’s important to note that Oscar doesn’t ask for rave reviews. He’s very proud but never the one talking about what he’s done. The interest around his career… it’s all because of what he’s achieved.”

Oscar Piastri Esquire Australia
Coat, POA, by Dolce & Gabbana. Photography: James Anastasi. Styling: Catherine Hayward.

Raw talent and consistency make a champ in any sport, says Webber. “You can’t turbocharge these things, and that’s why a lot of young drivers don’t make it, because there are gaps that emerge at a critical point. And when you put them under the blowtorch, and they go through the junior categories and try to convert to Formula 1, they crumble. Oscar has gone through that transition to Formula 1 and still has a lot to do, but his ability to consistently perform when it counts has been something incredibly admirable.”

Webber adds: “In his junior categories, he was just always there when it mattered, and it made the opposition crazy because they could not work out how he was always consistent. And that’s why he’s gone through to F1 where others haven’t. He’s just that little bit stronger.” Like Carlos Sainz Jr., George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton, Piastri was built differently. “And you could see that at an early age. He was in that bracket.”

Piastri is the youngest on the grid and part of a new generation of drivers climbing the ranks as part of the sim generation. Among these young, technical racers, there’s an emerging attitude of, ‘If you’re not in the sim, there’s another kid spending hours in it on the other side of the world’. iRacing—the most popular simulator game, played by Piastri and most of the F1 grid (“for fun, these days,” Piastri clarifies)—for example, claims an estimated average of just under 100,000 players daily. However, this generation seems to puzzle a lot of older F1 fans. Does he notice differences between his generation and the more experienced drivers?

Oscar Piastri quote

“Well… when Fernando and Lewis started racing, simulators weren’t a thing much at all,” he says. “So that aspect of things is very different. And the sport’s advanced a long way. Even just for me, the guys a few years younger than me, they’re playing iRacing in home simulators from the [same] age they’re racing go-karts.” That’s from six years old, folks. “Whilst you’re not fully learning everything to the finer details, you’re getting a pretty broad sense of how to drive these kinds of cars from a very young age. I think, as a racing driver, you never really think about the fear side of things much. So, in some ways, it’s easier if you’ve done a lot of simulator work, to just jump in the car and drive quickly. But compared to, say, when Lewis and Fernando were growing up, the amount of actual testing we have is basically zero.”

Oscar Piastri Esquire Australia
Suit and shoes, both POA, both by Giorgio Armani; vest, stylist’s own. Photography: James Anastasi. Styling: Catherine Hayward.

For comparison, the old days of F1 might have seen drivers get 40 days of testing—the only time drivers had with the new car ahead of the racing season, and where key setup changes can be made that would otherwise be too risky to do at a race—whereas Piastri and his teammate, Lando Norris, now share three for the whole year. So translating digital learnings with real-life feel has become a new challenge.

“What you gain from a simulator, you definitely lose—and I would argue, and then some—on track driving as well.” Another consideration is the relentless and gruelling F1 calendar, which stretches from early March to December and includes not only racing but everything that goes with it, including media and social-media demands, fandom noise, partnership commitments and more. This imperative of time-and-energy management is one of the most challenging aspects of racing, says Piastri. It was a learning curve he had to navigate last year, and one that will challenge him again heading into a busier 2024 season—including his home race in Melbourne this month, where everyone will want a piece of the local wunderkind.

“It’s definitely nice to have the home fans’ support, but I don’t approach the weekend any differently—they don’t give you bonus points for your home race, but there are a lot more people wanting your attention,” Piastri laughs. “So, we’re talking about performance, managing schedules, timings and my energy levels. That’s so important for the weekend because it can get a bit too much at times. But I’m looking forward to seeing the home crowd again. I think the fans might know me a bit more now. And hopefully, we’re a bit quicker than last time we were there and get some success in the MCL38 [McLaren 2024 car].”

Oversized jacket, POA, by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent; shirt, stylist’s own. Photography: James Anastasi. Styling: Catherine Hayward.

Of course, there are some perks to this life, too, like a McLaren Artura company car, for example—the new generation hybrid V6 that Piastri has taken out for hot laps during the F1 festivities, and says is a lot of fun on the road and on track. “The hybrid is cool, and you don’t wake up the neighbours when you start it up in the morning,” he grins. And for those wondering… Piastri is a car guy, but that’s not why he races. “For me, it’s the competition,” he says. “I still like cars, but what keeps me going and why I love racing so much is the competition with other people, other teams and with yourself, especially pushing yourself to get better.”

Oscar Piastri quote

Which brings us back to the core question that has surrounded the young Aussie talent, from his competitors to his critics: what is it about Oscar?

“Well, he’s certainly got that Australian thing, too,” offers Webber. “What we love about Patrick Rafter, Ash Barty. He just rolls that same way. Head down. Focused. He’s just an extremely traditional Australian talent.” Translation: he’s here for work, not for show. “You know, I can probably count on one hand the number of laps where I’ve said, ‘I don’t think I could have done anything more than that’,” Piastri shrugs, reflecting on his career. “I’m just always trying to perfect things. That’s what drives me and that’s really the part of racing I enjoy the most.”

Noelle Faulkner is a freelance journalist, strategist and futurist, and Esquire’s automotive correspondent. 

Photography: James Anastasi
Styling: Catherine Hayward
Grooming: Josh Knight at Caren using Patrick’s
Production: Elliot Zelmanovits at Sunday Service Agency 
Photography assistants: Stefan Ebelewicz & Marija Vainilaviciute
Styling assistant: Jonathan Martin 
First AC: Sy Wiggall
Videography: Ned Farr.

This story appears in the March/April 2024 issue of Esquire Australia, on sale now. 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below