Just hours after Alpine announced that Piastri would drive for the team in 2023, a release that pointedly did not include any quotes from the 21-year-old, the Australian went nuclear.
“I understand that, without my agreement, Alpine F1 have put out a press release late this afternoon that I am driving for them next year,” he said.
“This is wrong and I have not signed a contract with Alpine for 2023. I will not be driving for Alpine next year.”
Such a public repudiation of Alpine, the team that has funded much of his career to date, suggests the Piastri camp feel they are on very solid ground in terms of a drive with another team for next season.
That team, according to all reports, is McLaren. And there isn’t room at the inn for both Piastri and Ricciardo.
Ricciardo has a contract for 2023, and recently stated publicly that he intended to honour it, a statement he made on social media without an involvement from the team, which might prove to be significant.
But Piastri isn’t a complete stranger to the Woking-based team, having driven their simulator at least twice already this year in his role as one of the team’s reserve drivers. He came within 24 hours of making his F1 debut for McLaren in Monaco, when he was placed on standby as regular driver Lando Norris battled tonsillitis.
Should Piastri join Norris at McLaren, there’s two ways it could play out for Ricciardo.
Piastri’s signing could be being orchestrated with the full knowledge of his fellow Australian, who would then accept a payout to drive elsewhere in 2023, either in F1 or even the IndyCar series, bringing to an end what’s been a miserable two seasons with the team, his Monza win notwithstanding.
The other option is far less palatable. It’s possible Ricciardo is simply being forced out of the team against his will, in which case it’s likely to be a case of lawyers at 10 paces.
A similar situation occurred in 1991 with another highly-touted rookie, when Michael Schumacher moved from Jordan to Benetton in a very messy deal that left team owner Eddie Jordan furious. The man behind that move was then-Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, who happened to pop up at the recent Austrian Grand Prix.
Briatore manages Fernando Alonso, whose departure from Alpine created the opening for Piastri, and also looked after the career of Piastri’s manager, Mark Webber. It’s not out of the question that Briatore has had some influence in the proceedings of the last week, especially around the timing of Alonso’s departure from Alpine, which at face value has left the team in something of an awkward position.
Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer said that as late as Sunday evening he expected Alonso to re-sign, and only found out the world champion was leaving when Aston Martin put out a media release announcing his signing on Monday. That left Alpine floundering, with suggestions they missed a July 31 deadline to confirm a drive for Piastri, leaving the Australian free to go elsewhere.
Certainly, Alpine’s stance changed considerably in the space of a few hours. On Tuesday evening, Szafnauer said Piastri was the team’s “preferred option” to partner Esteban Ocon in 2023, but conceded that Webber wasn’t returning calls.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Alpine then went on the front foot, announcing Piastri as one of the team’s drivers even though the driver himself claims nothing has been signed. Such a step from Alpine seems misplaced if its contract is as watertight as the team seems to believe.
What’s not out of the question is a straight swap between the two Australian drivers, with Piastri partnering Norris at McLaren and Ricciardo returning to Alpine, the team he walked out on to join McLaren.
Regardless, it’s looming as an expensive legal mess.
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