Is Oscar Piastri The Driver Renault Need?
With the FIA Formula 3 title sealed, is Australia's Oscar Piastri the driver Renault/Alpine should look to for the long-term in Formula 1?
The 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix was a strong weekend within the Renault camp. Daniel Ricciardo delivered a class performance to take fourth place, a position away from achieving Renault's first podium since their return in 2016.
Christian Lundgaard clinched pole position, the sprint race win, and a chance to win the feature race in FIA Formula 2. The win and pole, as well as disappointing performances from his rivals, puts Lundgaard in the fight with six races left to play.
And finally, Oscar Piastri capturing the FIA Formula 3 championship in an intense, title finale against Theo Pourchaire and PREMA teammate, Logan Sargeant. Despite a setback first race, the Australian had luck on his side as he finished seventh in the final race, with Pourchaire could only manage third and Sargeant retiring after a first-lap collision.
Coming into the weekend, Piastri was leading the series with five other drivers mathematically still in a shot of winning it. But following a collision in the previous race, Piastri would serve a five-place grid drop for the first race. To make matters worse for Oscar, he qualified in 11th, meaning he would start from 16th overall, whilst Sargeant, who too was serving a penalty, qualified second (starting fifth for the first race).
With Pourchaire finishing third and Sargeant in sixth, Piastri failed to score, leaving both PREMA drivers tied on points and Pourchaire nine points behind going into the final race of the year. The title fight reached boiling point when Sargeant lasted only one corner, crashing out with Lirim Zendeli, ending all title hopes.
This left was a straight fight between Piastri and Pourchaire, with the French ART Grand Prix driver rapidly climbing up the order in a bid to snatch the title. But Piastri was on the move as well, climbing into the points to hold onto his championship lead against Pourchaire.
The PREMA and ART team played their tactics in the race. Teammates would dive out of the way or block their rivals. At the chequered flag, Piastri did enough to beat Pourchaire to the title, even passing ART's Alex Smoyler on the line for an added bonus to fully seal the deal.
Oscar Piastri did enough to clinch the F3 title at Mugello // Image Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited.
With the title sealed, Piastri joins Robert Shwartzman in winning the FIA Formula 3 championship in its modern era. Both drivers did this with PREMA, and Shwartzman continues to excel in FIA Formula 2.
Mentored by former F1 winner Mark Webber and with one of the best junior teams in the world, Piastri's season in F3 got off strongly, winning the first race of the year and being consistent throughout against his competitors. It was only until the final third when the tide change and Sargeant was the man at the front. But the tide came back to Oscar at Monza when his American teammate suffered a double DNF.
The next destination is likely to be the same, but the 19-year old looks set for a bright future. A future that could put him on the map as Australia's next talent in Formula 1.
Piastri is a member of Renault's Driver Academy - joining the squad this year and looks set to make the step up into F2 for 2021. Renault currently have two academy members in F2: Lundgaard and China's Guanyu Zhou.
Both were looking to make the step up into F1 with Renault (now soon to be Alpine) for 2021 but were snooped by two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso as he makes his comeback. The decision left fans scratching their heads and questioned over Renault's use of their academy and their recruitment since returning as a constructor in 2016.
Whilst many feel Zhou or Lundgaard deserve a shot in F1, it's probably not the best time for Renault to promote them, and given their position in the F2 standings, a right call has been made for now.
The Enstone team are currently in an important battle with McLaren, BWT Racing Point, and Ferrari within the midfield, and any new rookie coming in could hinder their progress before the new wave of regulations come in
The appointment of Alonso alongside Esteban Ocon for 2021 seems like a safe pair of hands. Both bring a flavour of experience and youth in the team, whilst both possess speed and skill. But with Ocon out of contract at the end of '21 and Alonso in '22, they could turn to someone new.
Someone like Zhou or Lundgaard, who could stay in F2 for another season and attempt a title-winning bid next year, or they look to Piastri, who is on a hot streak by winning Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula 3 in two years.
Piastri was the best out of the PREMA trio against Frederik Vesti and Logan Sargeant // Image Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited.
Previous drivers like Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc, and George Russell have all progressed through Formula 3, GP3, and Formula 2 respectfully in rookie years before leaping into F1, and Piastri is set to follow that path if he can repeat his magic from F3 into F2.
Piastri is expected to make the move to F2 in 2021, with either reuniting with PREMA or joining a team like ART, UNI-Virtuosi Racing, or Carlin to put in a title bid in his rookie season.
The Australian already has enough Superlicence points to race in F1 with 30 points for winning Formula 3 and 15 for winning Renault Eurocup. We could expect the new F3 champion to take part in FP1 sessions in the near future, in preparation for a step into F1.
Renault has a history of giving their academy drivers F1 tests and FP1 runs in the past. Zhou, Lundgaard, Jack Aitken, Max Fewtrell, and the late Anthoine Hubert were given private tests by the French manufacturer to improve their experiences. Oscar would have probably be granted a test this year, but due to COVID-19, that would likely be delayed until 2021.
If Piastri delivers again and wins or finishes in the top three-five in F2, Renault would likely appoint him into its F1 team to replace Alonso or Ocon.
But what if Piastri, Zhou, and Lundgaard all deliver and fight for the title in '21? Who do Renault appoint?
The chance of this happening is possible and is happening now with Ferrari and its Academy. Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott, and Robert Shwartzman all lie in the top four of the championship and all gunning for a seat in F1 next year with either Haas or Alfa Romeo.
It's a tough call to make for any team and its no exception for Renault. Whilst its a risk to go with a rookie driver, it could lead into a long-term investment and a driver they can build a future around.
But calls like this are tough to make. A lot of money is being invested into these young drivers and if they don't succeed in F1, they are quickly dispatched. Stoffel Vandoorne was an example of this at McLaren, despite having the strongest GP2 record to date.
But if they can get it right, the reward is sweet. Ferrari is doing it with Leclerc. McLaren is doing it with Norris. Mercedes is planning it with Russell. Renault could follow suit and plan their future with Piastri, kick-starting the next generation for the French team.
If Piastri repeats his F3 success into F2, expect Australia to have a new star on the F1 grid and an eventual replacement for Daniel Ricciardo when he departs.
With F2 still running until December, expect Piastri to make a cameo appearance for a round or at the post-season test at Bahrain, confirming his next step in the road to Formula 1.
And the Oscar goes to.... // Image Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited.