Alpine confident of keeping Oscar Piastri to replace Fernando Alonso next season in F1

Alpine keeping Oscar Piastri
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Alpine principal Otmar Szafnauer remains confident that the team will be keeping Oscar Piastri for next season after the matter is decided by a Formula One board.

Alpine is in dispute with its reserve driver Piastri, who said he doesn’t want a promotion to the Alpine seat vacated by Fernando Alonso.

Szafnauer confirmed Friday that Piastri also has signed a contract with McLaren for 2023. The matter will go before F1’s Contract Recognition Board (CRB) next week.

“What we’re doing to retain him is going to the CRB on Monday and we’ll have the CRB decide which contract that Oscar signed takes precedence. Once we have that ruling we’ll look forward and see how we go,” Szafnauer said Saturday. “I’ve seen both sides of the argument and we’re confident that Oscar signed with us back in November. There are certain things that need to be in the contract and I’m confident they are there.”

The case could have ripple effects in the NTT IndyCar Series, where McLaren has a testing contract with Colton Herta and also has signed Alex Palou (who is in a contract dispute with Chip Ganassi Racing that is similar to Piastri’s situation).

The domino effect started at the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July.

First, four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel announced he was retiring at the end of 2022, leaving his Aston Martin seat open. Then, the day after that race, Alonso stunned Alpine by announcing he was joining Aston Martin next year.

Alpine had offered Alonso, 41, a one-year deal with an option for another year, but he accepted Aston Martin’s longer offer.

Then, Alpine said late the next day it was promoting Piastri into Alonso’s seat only for the 21-year-old Piastri to flatly refuse it on Twitter.

“I understand that, without my agreement, Alpine F1 have put out a press release late this afternoon that I am driving for them next year,” Piastri tweeted at the time. “This is wrong and I have not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023. I will not be driving for Alpine next year.”

That’s not how Szafnauer sees it.

“His promise to us was to race with us if we put him in our car, so that’s what we’re pursuing,” Szafnauer said. “Going to the CRB is the logical next step when you believe you have a valid contract with the driver and he signed something else.”

If Piastri wins, though, Alpine will need to replace him: possibly with Daniel Ricciardo, who is splitting with McLaren at the end of this year.

But Szafnauer believes history could be on his side.

“This has happened in the past. I just happened to be there when it happened to Jenson Button, when he signed for Williams but BAR Honda rightfully took up their option on Jenson,” he said. “Jenson really wanted to go to Williams, BAR Honda won at the CRB and then had a great relationship with Jenson culminating in a world championship (in 2009).”

Szafnauer said Piastri – whose contract is through 2024 with an option at the end of ’23 – seemed happy when he was told he’d replace Alsonso.

“He happened to be in the simulator and I went and found him and he smiled and was thankful,” Szafnauer said. “So we made the (press) release really quickly.”

Alonso was a free agent when the move happened, meaning the two-time F1 champion was free to talk with Aston Martin and other teams.

“There was paddock rumor on Sunday that it could happen, so not that big of a surprise. The surprising bit was that we went a long way with Fernando in our negotiations with him,” Szafnauer said. “We got to the final hurdle and Fernando indicated that he was ready to sign. The only surprising bit was that it was announced Monday morning, when Sunday night he indicated there was no need to rush.”

Although Szafnauer insists he does not not feel let down by Alonso, he had thought he would stay.

“When I left Fernando on Sunday, he told me `Look, don’t worry we’ve got time. I’m going to be on my boat in Greece over the holiday.’ He invited me for a coffee. He said, `If you’re in Greece come to my boat,’ ” Szafnauer said. “We put in front of him a contract we’d be happy with … Although he wanted a longer deal, he intimated to me that 1+1 was fine.”

McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl, who sat alongside Szafnauer at a news conference on Saturday, remains tight-lipped about who will replace Ricciardo.

“I don’t want to comment on any driver names or scenarios,” he said. “It’s something we will address from next week onwards.”

Seidl’s relationship with Ricciardo remains strong enough for them to share beer and a dinner, he said, adding that he felt sad for the Australian driver. Ricciardo won the Italian GP last September for his eighth F1 win but has largely been outperformed by Lando Norris this season and last.

“It wasn’t a secret that despite all the effort on Daniel’s side and our side, despite the huge commitment levels on both sides, we simply didn’t manage to achieve the results we all had in mind,” Seidl said. “It didn’t change anything in terms of the respect for Daniel, in terms of (the) driver he is. But at the same time it was important to have clarity now making our plans for next year.”

Max Verstappen could clinch second F1 title with victory in Singapore Grand Prix

Max Verstappen F1 Singapore

While last year’s intense Formula One title battle went to the wire and captivated the world of sport, this year’s F1 championship long has seemed a procession for Max Verstappen that could end Sunday in the Singapore Grand Prix.

If the Red Bull driver wins, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crumbles, Verstappen will claim his second consecutive series title.

Verstappen leads Leclerc by 116 points with six races remaining in the 2022 season and will clinch the title if he scores 22 points more than Leclerc, his most realistic head-to-head challenger.

Verstappen, who turned 25 on Friday, must win to clinch a second world title, along with two other scenarios involving Leclerc. If Verstappen wins, Leclerc can finish no higher than ninth; if Verstappen wins and earns a bonus point for fastest lap, Leclerc can finish no higher than eighth.

“It’s quite a long shot,” Verstappen said. “I need a lot of luck for it to happen here, so I don’t really count on it.”

It is more realistic that Verstappen secures the title Oct. 9 at the Japanese GP.

“I think Suzuka will be my first proper opportunity to win the title,” the Dutchman said. “So I’m looking forward to Singapore right now, but I’m also very excited for next week.”

Still, there’ll be no tension in the air Sunday night at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, as in Abu Dhabi last year when Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton lost the title on the last lap to Verstappen. Hamilton missed out on a record eighth F1 title in a controversial finish following a chaotic late restart.

That fans won’t get to see any such drama this season is much to Hamilton’s regret.

“I feel for the fans . . . Last year, going right down to the wire, that was intense for everybody and so it’s never great when the season finishes early,” Hamilton said. “For you, as the one individual (winner) it’s great, but for the actual sport, (it) is not spectacular. Let’s hope for the future that it’s a bit better.”

Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez (125 points back), Mercedes driver George Russell (132 behind) and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. (152) are mathematical title challengers only.

Red Bull is unlikely to allow Perez an opportunity to beat Verstappen, though, and would deploy him to defend its star driver. Verstappen has won 11 of 16 races, including the past five, taking his career tally to 31.

“It’s been a really special season, and I’m enjoying it a lot,” he said. “But I (will) probably enjoy it more after the season, looking back at it.”

He’s also won from seven different grid positions – a single-season F1 record – including starting from 14th at the Belgian GP last month.

“It’s even good to watch when you’re in the car,” McLaren driver Lando Norris said. “Especially when he starts (far back) and still wins quite easily.”

Hamilton hasn’t been close enough to challenge Verstappen this year after so long in the spotlight.

Two of Hamilton’s came on the last day: in 2008 with an overtake on the last corner of the final race, and in 2014 when he beat then-Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi. Two years later, he lost the title in the last race to Rosberg.

Hamilton won the championship with three races left in 2015, and he won the 2020 title at the Turkish GP in a shortened season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With seven titles, that put him even with fellow great Michael Schumacher, who won the 2002 championship with six races remaining. An outstanding campaign saw Schumacher place first or second in 16 of 17 races and third in Malaysia – a race won by his younger brother, Ralf.

Hamilton has a record 103 victories but none this season.

Mercedes has struggled with ground effects, where the floor generates aerodynamic grip – an issue known as porpoising or bouncing – that has been particularly difficult on street circuits like Monaco or Azerbaijan.

Singapore’s tight and sinewy 3.1-mile street course again could be challenging.

“We hope that the car works better here,” Hamilton said. “It really depends how bumpy it is, and the bumps often set the car off. Maybe the car will be fine. Maybe it won’t.”

He does think Mercedes has figured out how to maximize opportunities when they do come.

“We know where those limitations are; we just have to try and work around them,” he said. “I think we were very fortunate, we’re in a much better place I think. So I hope that we’re not far away (from a victory).”

Russell seems to have coped better, however, and leads sixth-place Hamilton by 35 points in the standings. He has seven podium finishes compared to six for Hamilton, who was fifth in the second practice after leading the opening session. The Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc topped the second practice.

Williams driver Alex Albon returns to racing just three weeks after being hospitalized with appendicitis and then suffering subsequent respiratory failure.

Albon jumped back into the Williams FW44 for the first practice session on Friday in hot and humid evening conditions.

“It’s definitely audacious to come back for the toughest race of the season having only just recovered,” Russell said. “But it just goes to show the sort of grit and determination he has.”

Drivers lose around 5 kilos (11 pounds) in weight through dehydration during Sunday’s race.