Aussie F1 rookie Piastri pumped up for home grand prix

Melbourne (AFP): Rookie McLaren driver Oscar Piastri grew up 15 minutes away from the Australian Grand Prix circuit and used to play cricket on the ovals being used as the race paddock.

Now 21, he is preparing for a dream debut at Albert Park — only his third race in Formula One — in front of an estimated 140,000 fans on Sunday to cap a meteoric rise.

“I played Aussie Rules footy and cricket on some of the ovals that are now the paddock, so yeah, very special to be home this weekend,” said the Australian, seen as one of the sport’s hottest young talents.

His opening two races were a mixed bag, coming 15th in Saudi Arabia and failing to finish his debut grand prix in Bahrain.

But he was encouraged by his performance in Jeddah and is determined to build on it in front of his home fans following some upgrades to the car.

“Qualifying (in Saudi Arabia) especially gave me a lot of confidence that the way we’re working is the right way,” he said.

“I didn’t really change that much from Bahrain but the results were much different obviously, getting into Q3. It was a nice confidence boost.

“We’ll try our best obviously (to score points),” he added of Australia.

Piastri has said his main focus in 2023 was to set the foundations for a long F1 career, and he has the bonus of former driver Mark Webber acting as his mentor.

His fellow Australian has helped him cope with the inevitable media attention on home soil.

“We’ve been managing it very well. Having Mark in my corner is very useful, he’s been in my shoes plenty of times here in Melbourne,” he said.

“Obviously, the team have got experience with Daniel (Ricciardo) in the last couple of years as well, so I think we’re organised with that kind of thing.

“The rest has been very well managed. It’s not been too crazy, and has allowed me to focus on driving, which is nice.”

Piastri was caught in a tug-of-war between Alpine — where he was a reserve driver — and McLaren last year with the former claiming he was contracted to them, even announcing him as part of their 2023 line-up.

But the Australian forced them into an embarrassing U-turn when he said he had no such arrangement.

An International Motoring Federation (FIA) arbitration panel judged in McLaren’s favour, which saw the underperforming Ricciardo’s contract terminated a year early so Piastri could join.