Oscar Piastri is not the most obvious of Formula 1 drivers.
After claiming his first Formula 1 podium at the Japanese Grand Prix, he allowed himself an enthusiastic “wow” over the radio but continued, “It’s not the best pace I’ve ever shown in the world.”
But this reaction is not a bad thing. Instead, it is a very encouraging trait for a driver who has already made a huge impact in Formula 1.
The 22-year-old’s performance, qualifying on the front row and finishing third on his first visit to Suzuka, was an impressive achievement. But Piastri wasn’t happy with his race performance and wasn’t afraid to admit it. This highlights a major weakness that he is working on, although it should not be taken as a criticism of his qualities. In fact, this underscores exactly why he’s such an exciting candidate.
Some drivers may be focused solely on the result, considering his qualifying performance and the fact that he only trailed teammate Lando Norris thanks to McLaren’s command that he jumped on him by pausing partially under the virtual safety car and enjoying a first podium finish. As evidence of his brilliance. Not Piastri.
Instead, he focused on elements of his performance that weren’t as strong as they could have been. This is the trait that distinguishes drivers who are destined for greater things, and constant improvers who leave no stone unturned in honing their skills.
“I wasn’t fast enough at certain points in the race,” Piastri said. “These high-level races are probably the biggest thing I need to try and work on right now.
“It’s still new to me. In all the junior races before this, there are no races like this, so the only way you can learn is to just do the races.
“So [there are] There are definitely some things that, if I were to run this race again, I would have done something a little different.
“But it’s all part of the learning. It’s exciting to know that we can finish on the podium, even if I feel there is more to come.”
Piastri finished the race 17.1 seconds behind Norris, although this deficit would likely have been larger had it not been for the virtual safety car and a slight strategic difference. This resulted in the most pronounced display of the velocity difference.
Piastri was five seconds behind Norris and was in third place when he entered the pits at the end of lap 13 of 53. The VSC system was activated while he was in pitlane, minimizing his loss of time. Norris also lost time behind the slow Sergio Perez under the VSC system, by nearly four seconds when measured against leader Max Verstappen. This meant that when Norris exited the pits four laps later, he had fallen to seven seconds behind Piastri – a 12-second swing in Piastri’s favour.
Norris quickly caught up with Piastri and shortly after via radio, ordered McLaren to swap positions. It was a wise move as Norris subsequently pulled out. However, even compensating for tire life with four laps distorted the gap given the high levels of deterioration experienced by the Suzuka.
“If you pit, for example, one lap behind someone else, you earn a tenth,” McLaren team principal Andrea Stella said of this stage of the race.
“Lando instigated [four] Rolls [after]So his car is automatic [four] Tenths faster than the other car. So the fact that he did maintenance later was an advantage in terms of relative frequency.
“In addition, I have to say that Lando’s pace today was very good in absolute terms. “We have to look with Oscar where we could have gotten the overall price which he seems to be lacking today compared to Lando.”
This slight offset distorts the numbers, but overall there was a clear difference in pace across all periods. Averaged across the entire race, deducting laps in which the driver made slower turns such as the inside and outside laps or those affected by VSC, Piastri was on average 0.561 seconds per lap slower than Norris.
In the first stint, the speed difference was at its narrowest, by half a second per lap, while it rose to 0.878 seconds per lap in the middle stint, which was distorted by the above-mentioned factors. In the final period, the deficit reached 0.737 seconds per lap. To that we must add the caveat that Piastri was not really competing with Norris, but simply had to take control of third place.
High-rolling races have been a challenge for Norris this season, for example in Hungary. It’s often overlooked that tire management isn’t just about “driving slow”, it’s about driving your tires in a way that minimizes degradation while achieving the best time possible. This poses a major driving challenge, one that always takes time for juniors to master.
“The tire and speed management at some points of the race was not as strong as I would have liked,” Piastri said. “In the first stint it felt like everyone was driving too slow, and then when I tried to push a little bit more, the tires wouldn’t let me go much faster.
“So there’s some things to work on, and yeah, just generally progressing in racing. There’s no easy way to learn other than just going racing and having a good or bad experience.
“The single lap pace especially the last few weekends has been a good improvement since the start of the year, but in this type of race the race pace is still room for improvement.”
Piastri’s single-lap pace was certainly impressive. From the start, his individual pace compared well to Norris even when he wasn’t quite as consistent.
As he gained experience, he got better in qualifying and beat Norris on Saturday in Suzuka. Even then, he showed his desire to improve but was disappointed that the time he gained in the first sector on the last lap was lost in what he described as the easier parts of the lap.
The key to making improvements is understanding where gains need to be made, and race pace is an area of focus for Piastri and race engineer Tom Stallard.
But as Stella points out, the key advantage is that Piastri has the basic speed needed to do the job. The Australian has shown that time and time again this year and it is important to note that in less tire sensitive races, such as Silverstone, his pace compared very well with Norris.
“It’s not that you learn race pace, it’s a set of skills that you then deploy in every race,” Stella said when asked by The Race about the reasons for Piastri’s race pace learning curve.
“In a race like today, with a big downturn, the car bouncing a little in places, high-speed and low-speed management can be applied.
“That’s why it’s a bit of a journey and it takes time, because every situation has its own characteristics. I’m sure Oscar will learn things today.
“And actually, in the end, it was actually better than it was in the second period, so it was just a case of systematic work to take advantage of all the learning possible. There is no one-time learning that applies to every situation.
“It’s just a beginner’s element. But the first thing I’ll always go for is absolute speed, which is what we saw yesterday because when you have that, working on race speed and all that stuff becomes much easier.
“Finding a one-lap advantage at Suzuka, as we saw yesterday, is much more difficult.”
That’s why Piastri’s weakness at Suzuka is nothing to worry about. The worry would be if he didn’t realize it was an area where there was still a lot of room for improvement, but all the evidence points to a driver who understands where he needs to make gains and who was able to do so even during the 53 laps of the Japanese Grand Prix.
Piastri had a solid rookie season. The good news for him and McLaren is that there is plenty of evidence that he will continue to improve as he gains experience.
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