The ongoing Formula 1 saga surrounding exactly where Oscar Piastri will drive in 2023 is unlikely to be resolved quickly.
It’s a story that has dominated headlines around the world following the bizarre sequence of announcements in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Both announcements were preceded by a media conference with Alpine Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer which, rather than clarifying the situation surrounding its 2023 driver line-up (clearly the intent) it instead served only to cloud things further – especially when Szafnauer suggested Fernando Alonso was on a boat in the Greek isles, only for the Spaniard to appear on social media in his native Oviedo (Spain) just hours later.
That highlighted the current disconnect at Alpine, further evidenced by its statement ‘confirming’ Piastri and subsequent denial from the man himself soon after.
At its simplest, the current situation boils down to a dispute with Alpine, which believes it has a valid contract with Piastri, and the fact the Australian (and his management team which includes Mark Webber) disagrees with.
It is strongly suggested that the reason for that disagreement is because he has a contract in place with McLaren.
At not point has it been formally confirmed that the ‘other team’ is in fact McLaren, though there are a number of strong indicators which suggest as much.
Speaking to the press on Wednesday morning, Szafnauer mentioned the team in relation to discussions over a potential loan deal.
Furthermore, Piastri, Webber, and McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown are known to have had a scheduled dinner meeting in the days prior to the French Grand Prix.
Combined with other factors, such as the fact Daniel Ricciardo has been under pressure for much of the last 12 months, and few other teams have available seats (save Williams, realistically), we can with a certain degree of confidence determine that the other team is indeed McLaren.
Knowing that, moving through the process a step, one of three outcomes is now likely.
The first and simplest is that Piastri is contractually bound to Alpine and will be compelled to compete with the Anglo-French squad in 2023.
Another is that a clause in the Alpine contact has been exercised and the 2021 F2 Champion will instead be free to race for McLaren next season.
A third is that the Alpine contract is enforceable, and the team opts to bench him – an unlikely outcome but a possibility in a sport where the paddock is often referred to as the Piranha Club.
There are other important ramifications that will have a lasting legacy for both Piastri and others.
First and foremost, the 21-year-old’s loyalty and honesty has been drawn into question.
Having been largely funded by Alpine (or Renault under its previous guise) there is something of an obligation to the company. It has, after all, played a very significant role in getting him to where he is.
For Piastri to effectively turn his back on that in favor of another opportunity will not have done his reputation any help.
He will have also done himself no favors within Alpine, especially with its senior management; Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer and CEO Laurent Rossi.
Where once he’d have had their unwavering support, can that ever be the case again?
Then comes the question of the mechanics and their loyalty to the Australian, should he remain at Alpine.
While there’s no doubt that all would be continue to work professionally together, a positive and supportive environment in the garage cannot be overstated for a rookie in Formula 1.
Another implication is that the relationship between Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren is far more damaged than first thought.
Publicly, support has been forthcoming from Team Principal Andreas Seidl, and even at points Brown despite who has also shared his criticisms.
Ricciardo himself recently reaffirmed his commitment to the team for the balance of his contract, which runs until 2023.
That the team has seemingly not only held talks with Piastri and Webber about a deal, but appears to have even agreed one, very much contradicts that ‘we support Daniel’ rhetoric proffered by the team.
Given Piastri is seemingly prepared to walk away from a guaranteed race seat with Alpine, whatever was put on the table by McLaren must be significant and serious.
That leaves Ricciardo in a seemingly untenable position, even if his countryman doesn’t end up joining the team as is seemingly preferred.
Clearly Danny Ric no longer has the support of the team’s senior leadership, raising the same questions for the 33-year-old as it does for Piastri with Alpine; regardless of the outcome from here, can the relationship continue?
It’s a remarkable situation which has the potential to significantly, and negatively, impact the careers and reputations of two Australian drivers in one fell swoop.
Alonso’s decision to leave Alpine clearly caught the squad unaware. Had it had an inclination that his departure was a realistic chance, Piastri would have been kept on a much tighter leash.
In turn, more confident and comfortable with his own position, Piastri and Webber would have been less motivated to shop around, safe in the knowledge the future was set.
Instead, until Monday, he faced an uncertain future and was looking to wrap some certainty around his career, seemingly with the good graces of Alpin which was happy to loan him out.
Even still, it begs the question: was Piastri presumptuous in agreeing a deal elsewhere? That is the crux of the matter.
Did Piastri and Webber act appropriately in seemingly agreeing a deal with McLaren, and have they breached contract in doing so?