At the start of the 2023 Formula 1 season, Lando Norris and rookie Oscar Piastri were just fighting for points.
But as the year winds down, the McLaren duo is now fighting not just for points. But for podiums, and perhaps even a win in the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix.
This stunning turnaround has been a major — if not the major — story as the 2023 F1 season draws to a close. Ahead of tackling the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix Piastri sat down with SB Nation for an exclusive discussion, which began with the team’s stunning turnaround.
“Yeah, it’s been remarkable,” said Piastri when asked about the team’s incredible turnaround.
“It’s been incredible and like you said at that point of the year [when I spoke with Norris ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix] getting to the points was a good weekend for us and now finishing on the podium is starting to be, normal almost. It’s impressive how our expectations have changed and how our goals have changed.”
When McLaren traveled to Red Bull Ring for the Austrian Grand Prix the team was mired in sixth place, with just 17 points on the year. But things started to change for the team in Austria. The team had been promising upgrades to the MCL60, almost before pre-season testing drew to a close, and they brought a revised floor for Norris’s car to Red Bull Ring.
The result? A fourth-place finish for Norris, and the beginning of the turnaround. Since that race, only Red Bull has scored more points than McLaren.
It was a top-to-bottom effort in Piastri’s mind.
“I think a bunch of things. We obviously made a lot of changes at the start of the year in terms of staff and structural changes to the team,” said Piastri when asked about what jump-started the turnaround. “I think Andrea [Stella] as team principal has been incredible and also the work that Zak [Brown] has done as well to try and turn the team around, from even at points in last year.
“So, yeah, that side of things has been a big boost and I think, it’s the same people that built the car we had at the start of the season that have managed to deliver the car that we have now.”
In fact, Piastri puts the focus on those outside the MCL60, instead of those inside it.
“I’d love to say that Lando and I have just started driving way faster, but we haven’t, we’ve just been given a car that’s able to produce a lot more,” added Piastri. “I think just utilizing our people better has been a massive step in the right direction. I think being very confident in our development. You know, when we put the upgrades on the car in Austria and Silverstone, they did exactly what we expected them to in terms of the numbers. So we had a good sense of confidence from then on. And yeah, it’s been a very good wave of positive energy since then.”
Demurrer all he wants, Piastri has been driving well. Extremely well. Many, including McLaren CEO Zak Brown, have pointed out that his rookie season might be the best in F1 since Lewis Hamilton’s first campaign.
A comparison that Piastri certainly enjoys hearing.
“Yeah it’s nice to have that kind of comparison, I think,” said Piastri when asked about those lofty comparisons. “I’ve been fortunate in the second half of the year to have a car that’s been capable of some incredible results, fighting for podiums.”
As for some moments that have stuck out in his mind from his stellar rookie season? His first podium at the Japanese Grand Prix, and his victory in the F1 Sprint race in Qatar stand out.
But they are not the only ones.
“But definitely moments I’ve been proud of as well. Getting my first podium in Japan the sprint victory in Qatar has definitely been the highlight,” added the rookie driver. “Fighting for a podium at Silverstone as well. Those kind of weekends have been a massive confidence boost for me, that I belong here and I can compete with these guys at the front.”
That led to an easy follow-up: What was the moment where he felt like he belonged in Formula 1?
The British Grand Prix, where he finished fourth for his best finish at that point in the season, certainly stands out in his mind. But it was not the first moment where he knew he belonged.
“Yeah, I think [Silverstone] was one of the bigger moments,” described Piastri. “I think the first sort of glimpse of it was actually even earlier than that. I think Saudi Arabia, reaching Q3. I think cracking into the top 10 with what had been, you know, a disappointing first round where getting into Q2 was a decent effort, to then qualify in the top 10. That was a very good conference boost early on.”
While Saudi Arabia stands out as the moment he knew he belonged in F1, Silverstone remains a highlight of the season.
“Silverstone definitely when we had a car that was capable of fighting at the front, to be able to live up to the car’s potential and stay at the front, and get the most out of that,” added Piastri. “That was a really big confidence boost.”
I then Piastri about something that Brown told me when we talked a few weeks ago. During that discussion, the McLaren CEO praised the rookie’s maturity, noting how he does not look to win races on Fridays, but builds up throughout the weekend so he can be best prepared for Sundays.
Piastri shared his thoughts on that compliment, and noted the importance of making mistakes, and when you make them.
“I’ve tried to use Fridays to learn as much as I can, you know, to get things wrong because if you’re gonna get them wrong on Friday, it doesn’t matter,” described Piastri. “But if you get it wrong on Saturday in qualifying, that’s when it bites.”
It was time to talk about Las Vegas.
After all, the F1 world has been pointing to this race as perhaps the big event of the season.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be an exciting weekend for a bunch of reasons,” said the McLaren driver.
“Racing in Vegas is pretty spectacular down the strip. It’s gonna be an extremely cool experience. I think it’s gonna be a track that appears good for racing. A lot of long straights, tight corners,” he continued. “Generally makes for some mistake generators, and big big slipstreams.”
However, he did downplay his expectation for the MCL60 on the Vegas streets.
“I’m not sure it will be our most competitive weekend as a team,” he added. “I think the slow corners and long straights are still not our strongest areas.”
One area where Piastri might see more of an advantage than he has at various points in the season? Las Vegas will be new for everyone, and not just him and fellow rookie Logan Sargeant.
Could that give him a boost this weekend? Perhaps.
“At certain tracks that’s not really been a limitation for me, but at other tracks I feel like, yeah, definitely the experience, or the lack of experience has been a bit costly at times,” said Piastri. “So yeah, it’s gonna be nice to have first just a normal weekend with three practice sessions again, and a track that’s gonna be new for everyone. So hopefully it helps me out a little bit.
“But you know, I’m racing against some of the best guys in the world, so, it doesn’t mean I can take it any easier, right?”
As for the big theme of the week, the weather, Piastri noted that the cold temperatures — and how they impact the tires this week — could lead to some unexpected results.
“It’s gonna be an interesting one to see how it plays out,” said Piastri when asked about the weather. “You know, we don’t know what kind of state the tarmac is in, and these sort of new circuits or new tarmacs that often don’t behave the same way.
“You look at somewhere like Saudi Arabia when we went for the first time, it was incredibly high grip. And then when you look at Qatar just a few weeks ago, I think we went nearly ten seconds faster from the start of practice to the end.
“So, we’ll see what the tarmac behaves like. We’ve got very soft tires here. So hopefully that helps a bit and it’s not gonna be as cold as first feared I think. But, definitely it’s gonna be a bit of a challenge and we could see some unexpected results because of the tires.”
Having covered the serious topics, it was time to have a little fun.
Like all F1 teams, McLaren has generated some incredible content this year with their two drivers. But in Piastri’s mind, what has been his favorite moment?
“The Jack Daniels one that we just filmed was very fun,” described Piastri. As part of the team’s unveiling of their special Jack Daniels livery for the Las Vegas Grand Prix, Norris and Piastri “drove” the newly-painted MCL60 across the country, making a stop at the Jack Daniels distillery:
“There’s been a few good ones through the year,” continued Piastri. “The house of cards one was tough. It was very difficult to build a house of cards on a slippery surface. But, yeah, the Jack Daniels one has probably been the highlight. I think there’s a shot of us with the fire in the background, that’s where they make all the charcoal. So, getting to see that kind of facility was cool as well, but there’s definitely been some, some funny moments.”
The next topic? The one “Las Vegas” thing that the McLaren rookie wants to do before leaving town. Somehow, the conversation shifted towards tattoos.
“I mean, if I can get lucky and win the race, that would be perfect.”
That was just the opening I needed. When I talked to Brown a few weeks ago, I brought up his Monza tattoo, which was featured on a previous season of Drive to Survive. When then-McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo came through with a stunning victory at Monza, Brown commemorated that win with a tattoo of the circuit.
Would a win in Las Vegas be commemorated in similar fashion?
“Tattoos, I’d sure like to have some sort of new bet moving forward because I’m tattooed out with the one I have,” said Brown at the time.
Perhaps that would be the perfect “Vegas” thing for Piastri to do: Win the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, and celebrate with a tattoo alongside his boss?
“I mean, I don’t have any tattoos either, so I’m not sure I wanna get tattoos,” said Piastri.
“I’m happy to make a bet with Zak that he has to get one,” continued the driver. “I don’t think he’s fully opposed to it, so we’ll see, we’ll see what happens. But yeah, maybe we’ll do something. I know the saying is of course what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas if you get a tattoo that doesn’t mean to stay in Vegas. So maybe we’ll think of something else.”
As for how he hopes to close out his season, his answer reminded me of what Brown praised him for when we spoke a few weeks ago.
“I think for myself firstly, I wanna just try and learn as much as I can in these last two races, and help the team secure P4 in the constructors championship,” said Piastri when I asked him about his expectations for the final two races.
“And also just to try and learn as much as they can in these last two weekends, we want to try and come out strong next year and there’s the chance that we’ll be fighting for some, some big things and I wanna make sure that I’m ready.”
He again downplayed expectations heading into Las Vegas, and outlined that perhaps the season finale might be more fertile ground for the team.
“I think Vegas will probably be, you know, I think we’ll still be competitive but maybe not quite as competitive as the last sort of four or five weekends that we’ve had. Abu Dhabi, I think will probably suit us a bit better. A bit more of a friendly layout for our car. So hopefully we can end a year on a high there.”
But then the rookie driver, the one drawing those comparisons to Hamilton, closes with a hint of a smile.
“Vegas could throw up anything. So, yeah, wouldn’t rule us out this weekend either.”