In several of my recent articles I've covered the intricacies and developments around the future of Alpine reserve driver, Oscar Piastri as Formula One’s driver market silly season has been in full swing. Developments have been coming in almost hourly it seems, as the situation becomes more and more complicated. These complications have reached an interesting boiling point, bringing McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo directly into the spotlight as well. Bear with me as I try to navigate you through this complex situation as succinctly as possible.
The whole chain of events here was initially set in motion by this surprise retirement of Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel. Vettel shocked the Formula One world, including his current team, Aston Martin, when he announced his retirement from the sport at the end of this year. Up until that announcement, Vettel was slated to sign a one-year extension with the team to continue racing through the 2023 season (at the very least). This left Martin with a senior leadership role to fill, and they struck quickly to find a replacement. Just days after the initial announcement that Vettel was retiring, Aston Martin announced that they had poached veteran Fernando Alonso from Alpine, where he was also expected to sign a contract extension for one year with a third-year team option, with a mind towards Alonso eventually shifting to their World Endurance Championship entry. This left Alpine with a very clear and obvious next move to fill Alonso’s seat in Oscar Piastri, who was the team's reserve driver and prime for his debut in F1.
Things began to fall apart when Alpine, without consulting Piastri, announced that he would be driving for the team starting in 2023. This prompted Piastri to take to social media to announce that he did not have a contract with the team for next year and would NOT be driving for them in 2023. This sent the rumor mill spiraling. Before Alonso's departure, it was widely considered by the Formula One community that Piastri would be sent on a loan deal to Williams until Alonso left Formula One, then come back to the team to fill this place. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that Piastri has been undertaking an extensive development program both in Alpine simulators and in driving their 2021 car at a number of tracks, where he was slated to complete over 5000 kilometers of testing by the end of the season. This was a massive investment by Alpine because they believed they had a contractual right to Piastri and his future, and therefore their investment in him would pay off whenever he was promoted to their team in the medium-term future.
The team’s unilateral announcement that Piastri would drive for Alpine in 2023 and Piastri’s immediate and public renunciation of this raised eyebrows. It is very clear that Alpine believes they had a valid contract for Piastri and that they would control his destiny in 2023. It is also clear that Piastri had a very different understanding of what was going on, and unless he had something else lined up for next year, taking to social media and publicly renouncing a Formula One seat would be instant career suicide.
Where McLaren Fits In
In the days since Piastri’s public announcement that he would not be racing for Alpine in 2023, his reasoning for this statement has begun to seem clearer. While nothing has been officially confirmed by either team, it is widely accepted that Mark Webber, former Formula One Driver, and Piastri’s manager, had been in secret talks with McLaren to have Piastri replace Daniel Ricciardo. These discussions were undertaken under the understanding from Webber that certain contract provisions allowed Piastri to look for positions elsewhere. It is thought that in Piastri’s contract, there is a clause that allowed for him and his manager to seek outside Formula One seats if Alpine had not confirmed him a spot by a certain set date, thought to be before the start of the summer break of this year. Because no final decision had been made before the beginning of the summer break, Webber and Piastri believed that they were free to begin soliciting offers from other teams for a seat.
When Alpine originally made the announcement that Piastri would drive for them in 2023, they believed that they still had a right to him and there were no contractual issues. However, it is proving to be quite the issue, with no clear answer as to which party has the correct interpretation of the contract. With that said, the most recent announcements and press releases from Alpine have softened the original position that they had a contractual right to him for 2023, seeming to signify that there is probably something to Webber’s and Piastri’s interpretation of the contract. Instead of saying that they have a contractual right to have Piastri drive for them, their tone has changed to one of Piastri “is not showing the required loyalty” to the team who has invested heavily in him.
As of now, it is unclear whose interpretation is correct, and this dispute will almost certainly end up with the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board, which essentially operates as binding arbitration between the team and driver when contract disputes arise. Without having the details of the contract, it is impossible to say exactly who is correct, but it's still not an advantageous position to be in for Alpine.
The Expensive Riccardo Complication
If you are a Formula One fan, you might be sitting there saying “but wait, Zach, McLaren already has a valid contract with Daniel Ricciardo for 2023, how are they trying to sign Piastri?” If in fact, you were to think this, you would be correct—but let me explain. Technically, McLaren already has its driver lineup for 2023 locked in with Daniel Ricciardo being under contract for one more season and Lando Norris being on a long-term deal. In a previous article, I mentioned this contract and how Daniel Ricardo ultimately has the power to say if he wants to stay with the team or to leave early as a contractual option, which he has publicly stated he will not exercise. Well, now that McLaren is attempting to sign Piastri out from under Alpine, this essentially leaves them with the option of buying out Daniel Riccardo’s remaining contract so that his seat can be immediately taken over by Piastri.
Again, while nothing is certain at this point, speculation and reliable sources say that Daniel Ricciardo has requested a buyout of $21 million if he is to leave the team before his contract is complete. That is a massive amount of money to pay a driver to not race for you and makes it a more difficult situation for McClaren to handle as well.
Why the Switch for McLaren?
Since leaving Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo has had a tumultuous time to say the very least. He spent two seasons with Renault, the team currently known as Alpine after a soft rebranding, before signing with McLaren with hopes that he could get back to his winning form from his time at Red Bull. Well, that simply hasn't happened. Even on his best days Daniel Ricardo still finds himself unable to even match the performance of Lando Norris, McLaren’s younger and much more successful driver. Yes, Daniel did end up winning a race for McLaren last season, but that one good performance has not been able to outweigh the overall mediocrity he has shown otherwise.
Essentially, McLaren thinks that its best short and medium-term options are to pay Ricardo off and take the hit now so they can sign Piastri, allowing him to gain extra experience so that he can be even more formidable for the team in the future, while also simultaneously depriving one of their immediate rivals of what is widely considered to be the next big Formula One star. While it seems crazy that McLaren changed its mind so quickly, at the end of the day Formula One and its behind-the-scenes politics are emotionless, and the team has determined that this course of action would be its best option.
What Happens Going Forward?
It is unclear exactly what will come of all of this situation as the Formula One season progresses. It is almost certain that Alpine and Piastri will end up in front of the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board for arbitration, and their decision will ultimately affect what happens going forward. However, it does seem likely that Piastri we'll make the move to McLaren, and if he does there are still several question marks. Will Daniel Ricardo move to Alpine to fill the empty seat, or decide to leave Formula One indefinitely? Would Alpine even want to re-sign a driver that left after a tumultuous 2 years in the first place? If they choose to go down a path other than Ricardo, who does Alpine sign to replace him from the limited options available to them at this point?
Well, as of right now I don't have the answers to any of these questions. There's too much up in the air, too much possibility of different eventualities to say anything that is beyond pure and utter speculation. I may not be able to answer these questions now, but I can promise one thing—as soon as the picture becomes clearer, you trust that Conduct Detrimental, and I will keep you updated as soon as these situations become more concrete.
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.