Accusations of a “Dangerous Precedent” for Formula One: Is There Any Truth to Toto Wolff’s Comments?
I've covered the tumultuous Alpine and Oscar Piastri debacle in a number of previous articles—
but in light of continued comments by Alpine and now Mercedes Team Principle, Toto Wolff, I felt it warranted another examination. Wolff is on record saying that the Piastri situation sets a “dangerous precedent” for Formula One teams and their junior programs by supporting the ability of a driver to be “disloyal” to a team that has substantially invested in their career. His comments suggest that the actions by Piastri (which were upheld as valid by the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board) will negatively impact teams that have junior programs and makes signing young drivers into these programs less appealing.
I don't buy it.
Wolff is saying this because of his close relationship with Alpine’s Team Principal, Ottmar Szafnauer, but I don't think he really believes this statement. Formula One is a calculating, emotionless place. When a team decides that you are no longer worth keeping as a driver, they make “harsh” but necessary decisions to cut drivers all the time (see Daniel Riccardo this season, Pierre Gasly/Alex Albon at Red Bull). Piastri made a similar decision, and it just so happens that this time it was the team that got the short end of the stick and not a driver. Also, the CRB found that at the time of his signing with McLaren, Piastri had no valid or enforceable contract with the Alpine, who was dragging their feet and finding him a seat because of uncertainty surrounding Fernando Alonso.
Ultimately the blame for losing Piastri lies strictly with Alpine, who failed to recognize that he was out of contract and free to explore other options. This shouldn't be discussed as a “loyalty” question, but as one of contract management and drafting and should serve as a lesson to teams to make sure they're on top of that. Sources close to Formula One have said that Alpine’s contract department is only three or four people, which for a team that claims to be a “major force” within F1 and with an extensive junior program is not enough. This understaffing certainly played a role in the drafting of Piastri’s original contract, which did not keep him contracted for long enough and gave him this contractual out. It also certainly played a role in the fact that Alpine was “blindsided” that Piastri was able to sign another contract and that they missed their own contractual provision that allowed him to do this when evaluating options for the future.
It is insane to me that Alpine was/is operating with such a limited contract department, and if anything, this situation should serve as a warning and less into teams to make sure their contracts say what they think they do, last for as long as they want them to, and are actively managed, especially as they get close to expiring or certain contractual options become available. This situation is a real-world and expensive lesson in contract drafting and management, not “driver loyalty” as Alpine wants it to appear.
Teams like Red Bull and Mercedes also have extensive junior programs and don't have this issue because they properly manage these contracts and have a robust department devoted to them. For example, Pierre Gasly, who has been a driver in Formula One since 2017, is still on his contract with Red Bull which was signed when he was a part of their junior program. Red Bull saw his value and decided to protect it with a long contract so that they could reap the benefits of their investment in him. Apparently, Alpine didn’t do the same with Piastri.
It's not like this issue is a new one or one that is out of the normal course of dealing for teams in the sport. By failing to maintain adequate personnel and practices, Alpine is fully to blame for creating this situation. Piastri Was rightfully frustrated and found an offer that was immediate and certain, something that Alpine was unwilling to give him. Just because it is the driver getting what they want instead of a team does not make this a huge problem that sets any “dangerous precedent.”
If my frustration with the continued victim narrative being proffered by Alpine wasn’t already obvious, I honestly hope the drama around the Piastri saga is mostly behind us. The CRB has issued its final decision that Piastri’s McLaren contract is valid, and he will be racing for the team next year. If the roles were switched, Alpine would have had no qualms about cutting ties with someone they invested in if it was on their terms. Hopefully, all sides can move forward and stop dragging this out and attempting to characterize the situation as a “breach of loyalty” when it isn’t and instead is a result of failing to properly manage contracts.
Zachary Bryson is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a B.A. in Economics and a Minor in Entrepreneurship. He is currently a JD candidate at Elon University School of Law, Class of 2023. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharySBryson.