Had Max Verstappen’s stellar pole-winning lap not stolen the thunder during Japanese Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri would be the undoubted star.
At Suzuka, known in motorsport circles to ‘separate the men from the boys’, on a track he had never raced, the precocious 21-year-old Australian qualified second, to claim a first F1 front row start for his CV. And, with it, beating his on-form teammate Lando Norris in the process.
McLaren rolled out a raft of upgrades for the impressive MCL69 in Singapore, but only for Norris which the Briton put to good use as second place last Sunday testifies. With the good bits bolted to his car too, for Suzuka, Piastri managed to extract more of the package than his more experienced teammate.
It was a big moment for Piastri, a statement of intent and, remarkably, all executed with the calm demeanour of a seasoned pro. Bettering Norris by a few hundredths of a second in the process. The Kid from Oz is in F1 for the long run, that’s for sure.
Speaking in parc ferme, after Qualy at Suzuka, Piastri said: “The first lap was pretty solid. I was happy with it. The first chicane I could have done a bit of a better job but it was a good lap. Second lap my first sector was good and the next two sectors were not so good. But happy to end in P2, it has been a really good weekend for the team so far.
“We have got upgrades on the car, they are quick, and we thought we would have a decent chance around here. But you’ve still got to make it happen and so happy to be second and the team second and third. Very, very happy,” declared the McLaren youngster.
As for his first Grand Prix start from P2. Piastri reckoned: “It’s the first time I’ve started on the front row for a while. It will be cool. There is only one car ahead to try and overtake so I’ll try and make that happen.”
Brown: We have to keep pushing to see if we can get that Max guy
Another strong result for the upwardly mobile Woking outfit. The latest version of the MCL60 has made it good enough to be second in the pecking order at Suzuka. While Verstappen is half a second up the road and probably more than that when it comes to race pace, McLaren are clearly next as P2 and P3 testify.
All credit to McLaren CEO Zak Brown and his five-year plan to turn things around. It’s happening. This is what he had to say after one of his team’s finest qualifying sessions under his watch: “That was strong. We have been strong all weekend. Oscar and Lando are driving great.
“They are definitely getting the best out of this car that all the men and women at McLaren have given them. It’s pretty fast and we have to keep pushing to see if we can get that Max guy!
“The team back in the factory that have been designing and building have been pretty confident we would get results. But I’ve always been cautiously optimistic and still, from the start of the year, very much one day at a time. You have to give hats off to the team, what a fantastic job they are doing,” added Brown.
Thanks to a well below-par start to their season, McLaren’s recovery comes at a time when they can still move up the 2023 F1 Constructors’ standings from sixth, with Aston Martin up ahead.
If Sunday McLaren can fill two of the podium spots and retain the form of today through the remaining races, they could well be challenging for second place in the final F1 Teams’ standings this season. It’s a long shot, but doable with highly capable one of the best sideshows to a contest already long ago decided.