PREMIUM
Sport

Piastri relishes time back visiting family after ‘awesome’ 12 months

Enjoying the break: Oscar Piastri has spent the past few weeks with family and friends in the region after a stellar year behind the wheel. Photo by Rodney Braithwaite

When you are fresh off winning a historic Formula Two championship, one that heralds you as the next star of Formula One, it’s hard to go unnoticed to the public.

Oscar Piastri, a world away from the bright lights of Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi — where he secured his third consecutive championship title last month — and under the roof at MOVE in Shepparton, is spotted by a keen observer with paper in hand.

The man asks the 20-year-old for his autograph.

Relaxed — a vital skill for the young driver on the asphalt — and unfazed by his new-found celebrity status, Piastri accommodates the request.

It is now part and parcel of everyday life for the 2022 Alpine F1 Team’s reserve driver.

Once he crossed the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi and collected the F2 crown, becoming the first driver in history to win the Formula Renault Championship, F3 and F2 championships in succession, his profile has understandably grown.

When you match and beat records held by current F1 heroes, Charles Leclerc and George Russell, there is little wonder why fans of motor racing are ecstatic to meet him.

“It’s becoming a little bit more of a regular occurrence (being stopped down the street) for an autograph or photo,” Piastri joked.

“I’m slowly getting used to it.”

It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Piastri.

Straight out of an electrifying and narrow F3 championship win in 2020, Piastri earned a seat with PREMA Racing for 2021.

With back-to-back titles already under his belt, there was no denying that the Aussie speed wiz oozed class.

But it’s not every year that a rookie can take the fight to experienced drivers battling it out in the F1 feeder category.

His foray into F2 was always a “two-year plan” of his four-year goal before the start of the F3 campaign in 2020.

But Piastri says he “even surprised himself” with how fast he rocketed into championship contention.

A race win during his maiden weekend appearance in F2 piqued the interest of the racing fraternity.

Seven rounds and 20 races later, Piastri — now a household name — boasted extraordinary and enviable records.

Five more race wins, five additional podium finishes and five-straight pole positions, a feat that only one other driver has managed — that being Ferrari ace Leclerc in 2017 capped an astonishing and dominant year.

“It’s been awesome, there’s really no other way to put it,” Piastri said as he described last season’s glory.

“It’s been a really great three years ... last year in particular was my best year of my career. It was the most comfortable championship win after a few close ones.

“It’s been awesome and I’m glad I was able to prove myself in those junior categories and now, hopefully, I can make that final step up.”

That final step being a spot on the 20-car F1 grid.

Despite his wonders on the track, Piastri did not graduate to the highest form of Formula racing.

Many assumed that the Alpine Academy driver would get the chance to shift to Alfa Romeo and fill its vacant seat.

But Piastri’s F2 rival Guanyu Zhou, who finished third in the championship title, got the nod ahead of the Aussie.

Instead, the young gun will spend Grand Prix race weekends waiting in the wings for Alpine as its reserve driver.

If two-time world champion Fernando Alonso or race winner Esteban Ocon are unable to fill their duties, then Piastri will jump behind the wheel as their replacement.

Speaking about the year ahead, Piastri has quickly moved on from the disappointment of missing out on the drive and has focused on the positives.

“I’m looking forward to the whole experience, it’s going to be cool to experience the schedule of a F1 season,” he said.

“Obviously, I would have loved to be racing, but I’m trying to focus on the positives of what I can take out of this year. I think the main positive is getting to know the team at Alpine and working with them and treat the year as a preparation year.

“Firstly, experiencing the crazy schedule of flying to different countries every weekend without the pressure of having to perform, it’s quite nice to get that experience before I add in the driving in the future.

“I would have loved to have raced of course, we are all race drivers for one purpose, but this year is definitely not a wasted year or anything like that, there are still positives to take forward.”

During his past couple of years, Piastri has watched the hustle and bustle of F1 life from afar.

Fast cars, famous celebrities, a luxurious and Hollywood-esque lifestyle and, who can forget, the expensive costs, it’s a different world altogether.

“I’ve only seen it (the world of F1) very briefly a couple times,” he said.

“At Qatar (last year) after I was announced as reserve driver that was sort of the first time that I had been there (with the team) and almost felt like I belonged there.

“I had a bit more respect to my name (at Qatar), so that was a cool feeling.

“I’ve seen and met most of them before, I’ve worked with Fernando and Esteban and met Daniel Ricciardo (Australian F1 megastar) a few times now.

“It will be pretty cool to be in the same vicinity of him (Daniel), in the same paddock and doing the same job. He’s someone who I grew up watching and following ever since I started karting, so that will be cool.”

Piastri is currently in his off-season and back home visiting family.

Although born and raised in Melbourne, the Piastri name is embedded in the Goulburn Valley.

His grandparents and extended family still call Shepparton home — which is what brings the racing maestro to the region each summer.

“I find it reasonably easy to switch off from work (when I’m over here), but I’m still karting or jumping in the simulator just for fun, which I guess is why I do what I do,” Piastri said.

But this current holiday has been one to cherish.

Until recent months, a global pandemic has made travelling Down Under extremely difficult for the UK-resident.

It’s not like he isn’t accustomed to long stints away from his family.

Once his genius on four wheels became evident at age 14, Piastri jetted off to Europe to chase his dreams of one day becoming a professional race car driver.

No easy feat for a teenager to be separated by oceans and continents from family members.

“It’s been good to get back and see everyone. The last time I was here was last Christmas and it was roughly 11 months, which is the longest stint I’ve done away from home,” Piastri said.

“The family support has been great.

“Both my grandparents on both sides of my family are still here in Shepp and I try and visit them over Christmas and the new year. They’ve been great supporters, they are very proud grandparents and their support is always appreciated from the other side of the world.”

With his holiday Down Under now in its final days and the world of F1 calling his name, Piastri got the chance to check out the latest attraction in Shepparton.

Keen visitor: Formula Two champion Oscar Piastri was able to get up close to some of the display cars at Shepparton’s MOVE. Photo by Rodney Braithwaite

The newly-minted Museum Of Vehicle Evolution welcomed the modern day race driver through its doors.

And it was Piastri’s grandfather Hugh Macfadyen, a volunteer at MOVE, who had the pleasure of leading him through the displays.

“It’s very, very impressive I have to say. There are some really cool cars on display,” Piastri said.

“I didn’t know what to expect, I knew my granddad (Hugh) volunteered here ... it’s really impressive.”

The next time Piastri will be in the country will be for the Australian Grand Prix in April.

When he walks through the gates at Albert Park, you can guarantee the same easy-going talent who took a tour through MOVE will have hundreds of F1 fans desperate to meet the sport’s next star.