In only his second qualifying as a Formula 1 driver, this time for the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, rookie Oscar Piastri showed a glimpse of why he is one of the most highly rated youngsters in the sport, while triggering a warning to his teammate Lando Norris.
On a night in which Red Bull’s Max Verstappen grabbed the headlines when his driveshaft gave up in Q2, as did his teammate Sergio Perez who claimed pole position for today’s race and veteran Fernando Alonso who continues to dazzle in his Aston Martin.
Almost forgotten but certainly not unnoticed, Piastri became the first rookie to make it into Q3 this season, and from there did a solid job, under big pressure to ensure he starts his second Grand Prix from eighth on the grid.
The 21-year old Australian, mentored by fellow countryman and F1 veteran Mark Webber, was a class act on Saturday, with a McLaren team that has not found the sweetspot in their package, which proved a handful for Piastr’s teammate Lando Norris.
The Briton has been one of the revelations of the past few F1 seasons, basically destroying Daniel Ricciardo’s career in the two years they were teammates and a driver who many rate among the top three or four of the New Guard of F1 drivers.
With 91 F1 starts at the age of 23, Norris has experience on his side that provides an ideal benchmark for Piastri to pursue and, in his second attempt he out-qualified his teammate for the first time, not on outright pace – which Norris has large dollops of – but rather by soaking up the pressure.
The nature of the highspeed Jeddah street circuit creates a tense atmosphere for Qualifying, as teams unleash everything for grid spots, thus arguably one of the most hero-to-zero venues on the calendar. In this instance Piastri soaked up the pressure like a veteran, while Norris make a novice error, clipping the wall, when hunting an apex too greedily. It cost him dear.
Piastri lines up in P8 on the Jeddah grid while Norris’ car will be wheeled into the P19 slot
It was a good night for the Kid from Melbourne, who summed up his evening’s work: “It felt good. I think we were in a pretty good spot in FP3 with the balance and it transferred to qualifying as well, which was nice. So, feeling a bit better than yesterday.
“Also, I’m just getting more confidence with the car as well and just getting back up to speed around Jeddah. All felt good, put in some good laps and here we are in the top 10.”
As for the outlook for his second race in the top flight, Piastri said: “Our race pace was actually better than our quali pace. Obviously, our straight-line speed is not our strength so we will see how that goes, but confident to try and fight for the points. We will see if that is true, but we will try our best.”
The performance impressed McLaren team principal Andrea Stella: Andrea Stella: Oscar did excellent work to get into the final part of qualifying. He kept improving session-by-session through practice and run-by-run in qualifying where he put together clean laps and extracted the maximum from the car.
“Lando will have his chance in the race, as the car looks competitive, and races here can often be eventful. Our aims this year are for more than simply being satisfied by making it into Q3, but this is an improvement that we welcome,” concluded Stella.
Norris: The potential is there, the car is better
Norris was contrite after his qualifying gaffe: “It was a silly mistake I should not make, to be honest with you. I paid the price very quickly, so frustrated. I easily should have been into Q2 and potentially Q3, and let the team down today, so I’m annoyed.”
As for his race from down in 19th on the grid, Norris said: “I don’t know yet. The potential is there, the car is better paced than we had in Bahrain, so I want to be a little bit more hopeful. But it’s probably a harder track to overtake on than Bahrain, so I don’t know what to expect yet, I’ve not been thinking about that, so I’ll see tonight.”
Norris finished 10th at the first SaudiGP in 2021, last year he was seventh. Piastri has never raced F1 at the venue, but during his Formula 2 title-winning campaign, he did win a Sprint Race and the Feature race in Jeddah, two years ago.
As for the other rookies, Nyck de Vries, who had missed FP3 due to a PU change on his Alpha Tauri spun at the first corner but recovered. His tyres, however, ruined.
The third rookie, Logan Sargeant also spun, the American lost control of his Williams as he fumbled into Turn 22 after a strong lap was scrapped by FIA Stewards for violating track limits.
A very happy @OscarPiastri as he gets set to start from P8 in Sunday’s race! 💬👊#SaudiArabianGP 🇸🇦 pic.twitter.com/pVbdMSjxS3
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) March 18, 2023