Oscar Piastri’s championship glory in Formula 2 was his third in as many years and also his most emphatic. Craig Woollard explains how Piastri reached a new level of brilliance in 2021.
When 2020 FIA Formula 3 champion Oscar Piastri announced that he would be sticking with Prema for his step up to Formula 2 for 2021, strong results were rightly anticipated. A race win here or there, snapping at the heels of the highly-regarded (and mega-consistent) Robert Shwartzman, and maybe threatening for a top-five spot in the championship. That seemed reasonable enough for a first year at this level.
That was not to downplay the ability he showcased in his back-to-back Formula Renault Eurocup and FIA F3 triumphs, or how long it may take him to get up to speed in what is a very difficult championship to master, but more down to the wildness of F2’s one-off format for 2021, as well as the talent in F2’s highly-stacked field this year, many with experience. As his fellow Alpine Academy member Guanyu Zhou said coming into the year, up to 10 drivers were in with a genuine shot at taking this title. There was a sense that a different driver may ‘own’ each weekend, with consistency (aided by the format) keeping some players in action until the end.
So, sure, Piastri could well have been a threat for the title, but few could have anticipated that he would take this championship and turn it into his own, transforming it with the sort of consistent dominance not seen since the first season of modern F2 in the hands of Ferrari starlet Charles Leclerc, even if it took him three rounds or so to properly get going.
It didn’t take long for the Prema driver to get off the mark in this championship though, winning on just his second start from fourth on the grid, but a collision with Dan Ticktum in race three was an immediate blotch on his F2 record. Zhou was in command that weekend and asserted an early championship lead.
But it was this early that Piastri realised that the title push was on, as he explained after becoming champion, despite that first feature race of the year being the only real lowlight of his year.
“I think in Bahrain, I wasn’t super confident in getting everything together” he explained. “Qualifying was OK, the first sort of goal for that weekend was to qualify in the top 10, which we did. The first race was OK, wasn’t anything special, and then to win that second race, we actually struggled a lot to begin with and then the safety car actually kind of saved us and we carved through on the softer compound.
“Then that feature race as well, whilst I didn’t actually finish, for me that was a massive confidence boost up until that point because we were the leading car on my strategy which, in the end, didn’t really work with the safety cars. So you know, I led my first feature race, knowing I could fight at the front straight away, that was a massive confidence boost. So I left Bahrain thinking that I could win the championship, definitely.”
Like was often the case in F2 this year, there was a very long gap between the next round, and there was time for what turned out to be some crucial in-season testing. While Zhou and Virtuosi were focusing on their race pace for the coming rounds, Piastri and Prema went about working on the Italian team’s major bugbear from 2020 – qualifying.
Piastri had only qualified seventh for the season-opener (after a disqualification for the luckless Juri Vips), and couldn’t make progress on his race debut, and it was the area of major focus ahead of Monaco. As Piastri topped every single qualifying session he was in after that (Monaco ran with split qualifying, remember, and he was behind only the exceptional Theo Pourchaire on that Thursday) bar one, taking third behind the dominant Hitech duo at Baku, it’s clear those days of testing laid down some of the critical foundations for what was to come.
“I just feel like my understanding in the F2 car is far greater than what I had in F3,” Piastri explained to selected media before his crowning glory in Abu Dhabi, “and I think part of that has been knowing that last year, Prema, while they were strong in race pace, 99% of the time, I don’t think they ever qualified on the front row last year with either Mick or Robert.
“So, we knew that was a focus point and then in the testing, we made sure that was a big focus point of the test and to try and improve on that. So, I think having those kinds of goals instead of those areas to work on, instead of just jumping in the car and trying to be quick, I think that has helped put a bit of focus into my understanding of the car and I think that’s been the big key.
“I just feel really comfortable in the car, and when you’re comfortable in the car, it leaves a lot of other capacity to focus on other things that are going on in the race. Rather than trying to work out how to drive the car quickly and what the car needs, you can focus on other things and trying to perfect each lap.”
It was the outstanding Pourchaire’s turn to take command of a weekend on the streets of Monte Carlo, while Piastri kept in touch with second place – a very fine return regardless. Baku was the scene of Piastri’s second non-finish of the year after he was taken out by Zhou’s Virtuosi team-mate Felipe Drugovich, while Hitech and Juri Vips triumphed there.
Piastri got it nailed in qualifying for round four at Silverstone as the championship approached the halfway point, and the sprint race pace was strong, but a mysterious lack of pace in the feature race, losing the win to Zhou, was an element of a weekend he did not want repeating. He emerged with a narrow championship lead at the halfway point, and hadn’t even really got started yet…
“I think at the beginning of the season, we were having good moments and flashes of brilliance,” Piastri reflected. “But it wasn’t quite all coming together on a weekend. And then I think where that changed was Monza, [which] was the first time we converted pole into a feature race win which was the last thing we were missing, really.”
It was from there that Piastri started what turned out to be utterly devastating form, completely tearing up the script and turning this into his championship. After the Silverstone weekend, Piastri was simply unbeatable where the big points were in play, edging towards records set and held by Charles Leclerc back in 2017 albeit with fewer qualifying sessions and feature races to play with.
If there was one criticism to be had, it’s that Piastri was sometimes a little bit passive in some of the sprint races. But the weird quirk of this unique format meant you were rewarded with a better opportunity for a good result in the second sprint race as a result (to the point where you can tactically give up spots for a better chance at bigger points in race two). Putting too much on the line, as he showed in Abu Dhabi, can give big rewards when it comes off, but likely ends up in contact when it doesn’t.
Piastri’s a smart cookie and clearly was able to manage himself to the point where he was capable to push at the right moments, and not risk chucking the car off the road. He looked so comfortable in the latter part of the season, even in the face of bizarre weather situations (Sochi), a huge shunt on a crazy street track (Jeddah) and when the pressure started to pile on (Monza and Sochi in particular). So even then, that potential criticism may even have been a key strength to his success, such was the nature of F2 2021. He won four times between Monza and his crowning in Abu Dhabi, including three (well, two-and-a-bit) feature races, a very impressive run.
He returned from the mammoth 10-week gap between Sochi and Jeddah in such a relaxed fashion. His future was secure with an Alpine Formula 1 reserve role, and he was in a strong position to clinch the title. His dazzling form continued on the streets of Jeddah to the point where it looked certain that he was going to become the first rookie F2 champion since George Russell in 2018.
“I think the pressure release is more from not getting constantly asked what I’m doing next year,” Piastri said in Saudi Arabia when Formula Scout noted his relaxed demeanour. “I knew before Sochi that things were lining up for next year anyway,” he added. He had been grilled extensively on where his future laid for next year, while Alpine stablemate Zhou was linked year-long to an F1 seat. Tough questions were directed at him, and he managed it well.
“So, whilst I didn’t let you guys know that I more or less knew what was happening for a long time, and I think now that it’s all out of the way, I think our timing of the announcement, before F2 restarted, was no coincidence, to answer everybody’s questions.
“And now I can fully focus on F2. I don’t think our approach has changed, our qualifying results haven’t changed. I think I’m always quite relaxed. But now that I know what I’m doing for next year, it of course takes some more pressure off for this year. But it definitely doesn’t lower my motivation to want to win because I think we’re all here to win trophies at the end of the day.”
Piastri won plenty of trophies in his short time in F2, as he has done over the previous two seasons as he completed his remarkable triple title success in successive years. This year, however, was easily his most complete year by his own self-assessment.
“I think this year’s been my best year in racing,” he said, reflecting on the improvements made in 2021. “It’s been a bit of a culmination in particular of the last two years. I think [in] Formula Renault I felt like I had good speed that year but was maybe lacking a bit with the experience under pressure and the mental side of things.
“Whereas [in] F3, I’m happy to admit that I didn’t have the outright pace all the time, especially in qualifying, and made life more difficult for myself. But I think I really built up on my racecraft and especially the mental side of things. It was a very intense title battle [with Pourchaire and Prema team-mate Logan Sargeant] last year.
“So, I was very happy with all the other things from last year, minus my actual speed which is of course a very important factor, and this year it feels like I’ve put it altogether. I’ve been very happy with how this year’s gone, I think I’ve made a couple of small mistakes at the beginning of the year, but I think I’ve still made fewer mistakes than everyone else and I think that’s shown in the championship picture.”
That lack of a key consistent challenger became apparent as the season progressed. Team-mate Robert Shwartzman couldn’t keep up in qualifying until the final rounds, even if his race pace was strong. Zhou put in a few too many errors, as did Ticktum, while Pourchaire wasn’t helped by injury. Hitech duo Vips and Liam Lawson were among the unluckiest drivers in the season as well. Ultimately, none of them could consistently keep tabs of Piastri and even try to force him into a critical mistake, not that it looked like he would make one in the final rounds.
“That’s definitely not to say I can’t keep improving,” Piastri added. “There’s still things I think I need to improve, and I want to make sure that every race I’m coming out and giving my best because there’s been a couple of races such as race one in Jeddah where I didn’t feel like I performed to my potential, so there are definitely things I can still work on but on the whole I’ve been very happy with how this year’s gone.”
He joked a day later after taking his fifth pole that the secret to qualifying success in 2022 was a frozen dessert, but before his final F2 dance in the desert, he had given a more serious response to a similar question.
“I don’t really think there has been a secret, to be honest. I don’t feel like I’ve massively revolutionised the way I’m going about my racing. I’m still trying to do the same things.”
In two seasons covering this championship with the amount of access to the drivers Formula Scout has been granted by F2, this writer has watched four drivers secure graduation to F1, and a few others also prove themselves worthy of that step up. Following and talking with Piastri through his championship-winning F3 and F2 campaigns, I’ve seen him grow into the most F1-ready driver of them all.
That’s the level he’s at as he leaves F2. He looks the complete package, with no noticeable weaknesses either on or off the track. With every other driver, there has been at least one question mark about them which has resulted in uncertainty about how they would perform in F1 and its pressure-cooker environment, but Piastri already appears to have all of the elements in place and knows that he has to fine-tune them further to achieve the best out of himself.
It is frustrating that it isn’t going to happen next year, and a reflection on the state of F1 and the junior single-seater ladder. That frustration is evident in Piastri himself and in fans’ reactions, as well as us journalists. He’s a driver that every single team should be looking to poach if they can if Alpine cannot place him in its own team for 2023.
Hear Craig and Bethonie Waring discuss Piastri’s championship and other topics from the F2 finale in the latest Formula Scout podcast below, which can also be found on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.