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How Webber and Stella helped steer Piastri through his rookie F1 season

In an era of no testing and with sprint events compromising track time on race weekends it’s not easy to come into a high-profile team like McLaren, especially alongside a driver of the obvious talent of Lando Norris.

In addition Piastri had spent a year on the sidelines, having not raced since his last F2 event at the end of 2021. Private testing with an old Alpine in the first part of 2022 gave him some valuable F1 mileage, but that programme came to grinding halt after his move to McLaren was announced in the summer.

Given the tricky and uncompetitive nature of the MCL60 at the start of the 2023 season the Australian faced a huge challenge. However, the mid-season leap in performance of the car overlapped with Piastri making a personal step as he gained experience, and he was able to take full advantage. Fourth place at Silverstone was the signal of things to come, and he followed up with third in Japan and then second plus a hugely impressive pole-to-flag sprint victory in Qatar.

Every young driver needs a good team around him, and in Piastri’s case two people in particular should receive credit for helping him to progress at such a rapid rate. His arrival at McLaren coincided with Andrea Stella’s promotion to the team principal job, and the former engineer has a great understanding of drivers and how to get the best of them. And then there was Mark Webber, who with his wife Ann Neal steered Piastri through the ranks and into the McLaren seat. The former Red Bull driver drew on all his own experience to help Piastri navigate his way through a challenging rookie season.

“Overall, of course, I’m very, very, very proud, very happy,” says Webber of Piastri’s 2023 form. “I don’t think in our wildest dreams we could have expected to start with a season like that. But having hung out with the best in the world he knows there’s work to do.

“It’s never good for a racing driver not to race, with 15 months out. He did a bit of testing, but there’s no substitute for racing. He was certainly behind the eight ball a lot for the first six months, I think, even though he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse, because Oscar doesn’t make excuses.

“Obviously, at this level it’s not a bonus when you haven’t seen the lights for 15 or so months, pitstops and all that sort of stuff, safety cars, it’s just racing, which is what it’s about. So that was a bit of a shock, just how much the gap hurt. But he took it in his stride. And the team obviously were struggling at the start as well. And then the third race was the home race. There was a lot to consider early doors psychologically for him, which he handled very, very well.”

Oscar Piastri, McLaren

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Oscar Piastri, McLaren

As McLaren’s development programme ramped up there were occasions when Norris had the latest parts while Piastri had to wait. It would have been easy to become frustrated when the comparison with your team-mate is so important, but the younger man saw a bigger picture.

“We had some offset with some upgrades, which was also understandable, because the team were trying so much to get back on the right track,” says Webber. “So there was offset with priorities around that, and he handled that well. The sprint races, they’re also curly as we know, they’re very challenging, they’re very hard.

“It’s a very tyre sensitive championship, in terms of lose a set for a session, then you’re out of synch with the big boys. There are so many things to put weekends together cleanly, it’s so technical the sport now.”

The Qatar sprint win was the obvious highlight, especially as it was achieved with Max Verstappen chasing Piastri down. He didn’t put a foot wrong when the pressure was on.

“It was fascinating to be on the radio listening,” says Webber. “He was like, ‘just let me know when Max clears George [Russell],’ and then that happened. And then just the way he got everything lined up ready if Max did arrive, the McLaren guys were like, ‘okay, wow, that was third, fourth year stuff, maybe?’

“That’s the stuff that we like about Oscar. There are still gaps, there have to be gaps. It’s obvious. But ultimately over the next two or three years, of course, we’re going to start just slowly closing those gaps down.“

One of the most impressive aspects of Piastri’s season was that he made few mistakes. He had offs in practice in Montreal and Zandvoort – the latter triggering a crash for Daniel Ricciardo, the man he replaced at McLaren – and there was the odd first-lap bump when he was close to the sharp end and racing the big boys.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

“He didn’t go through much material, we sort of expected that, which is not always easy,” says Webber. “He said in February ‘I’ve got to be careful, I have to not be too soft in my first year.’ And Oscar’s like that.

“I said we’re not going to pay people on their reputations. We are going to respect them; they are best guys in the world. We have to race them, as hard as fair as you like, but don’t be too much of a pushover, because that’s what people might expect. That’s not what he’s about.“

Webber acknowledges that Piastri learned a lot from Norris, but he insists it also worked the other way as well as they drove each other on.

“I think they’ve given an upgrade within the team themselves,” he says of the pair. “He’s shown Lando some new stuff. Obviously, Lando showed Oscar a lot of stuff. He’s a very experienced team-mate. I think it was a big change for Lando, which was all positive for both sides of the garage in terms of the mechanics and everyone. And that was positive for Lando in many ways.”

Piastri acknowledged that in the first part of the year he took his time to get up to speed over race weekends as there was so much to learn and absorb, and thus was only really getting into his stride by qualifying. In the latter events of the season it was evident that he was pushing closer to the limits on Fridays, and that process of being on it straight away will ramp up this year.

“He’ll win some sessions, yeah,” says Webber. “The cars are so technical these days, and they’re so specific to your own requirements, and obviously, first time he worked with these engineers. Max had been with his eight years, Lando has been with his five years, so that bond, that marriage, those things take time. The elite are settled, and with Oscar, we can’t fast forward that. But what we can do is continue to give him support.

“McLaren have been just so, so good. He was so, so lucky to have Andrea in his first year. Andrea has just been so good for Oscar on the sporting side. And I know that Andrea loves Oscar.“

Stella agrees the Norris/Piastri pairing helped to drive the team forward in 2023, while stressing that the two drivers get on well.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, 3rd position, Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, Lando Norris, McLaren, 2nd position, with the trophies

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, 3rd position, Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, Lando Norris, McLaren, 2nd position, with the trophies

“The relationship between Lando and Oscar is a point of strength of our team,” says the Italian. “I have to say that being Lando’s team-mate is enjoyable, because we have seen this kind of relationship already with Carlos [Sainz], with Daniel. Therefore, I would like to acknowledge how much Lando creates the condition for establishing a fruitful kind of relationship that supports the team, supports the growth of both drivers. And then we’ve got Oscar. He came with a similar characteristic. With the natural process of knowing each other gradually, we can see that now this has created a very functional collaboration between the two drivers.”

Stella backs Webber’s point about the two drivers learning from each other, despite Norris’s greater F1 experience.

“I always acknowledged last year that also how much the two have, to some extent, complimented the characteristics from a driving and technical point of view,” he says. “Which means that already from FP1, looking at each other’s overlays, they could think ‘I could do better here because I know here Oscar can still be good’, and Oscar may say the opposite in looking at Lando’s data. I think this contributed to picking up over the weekends.

“We really look forward to taking one more step even in the relation to the way that the drivers collaborate with each other, and the way the drivers collaborate with their teams.”

With new technical recruits Rob Marshall and David Sanchez on board McLaren is widely expected to maintain its upward momentum and be at the forefront of the chase of Red Bull this year.

The Qatar sprint win was welcome, but the next step will be a grand prix victory, and it will be fascinating to see whether Piastri or Norris get there first, and what it does to the dynamic within the camp – especially if the former wins that particular contest.

“It would be an incredible result considering what we saw last year with Red Bull where there wasn’t really much space left for anybody else,” says Stella. “I think if we have a victory from Oscar, that would be an incredible emotion and it would be an incredible emotion for Lando as well, because it means we have a car that can win races.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

“If I project myself for one second into Lando’s head, I think I would recognise how fair of a competitor he is. He’s a very fair person, and he would ask himself, ‘what do I need to do better to do the same as Oscar has been able to do?’“

It’s a philosophy that Stella applies to the team and its drivers.

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“If we look at champions in F1, certainly Verstappen is not the same driver as he was last year or in 2021, and he is certainly not the driver he was when he started,” he says. “It is all about continuous improvement, and that is definitely the way that I see Lando would process that situation. But that is also the way that Oscar would process the situation. If we see how grounded he is, his way of reacting to the victory, he would think, ‘how can I consolidate this?’

“For me, the message to the drivers has always been about what can you do to improve every day?”

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

This article was originally published by a www.motorsport.com . Read the Original article here. .

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