It wasn't that long ago that Oscar Piastri was one of 'us'. Who hasn't, at some stage or another if you've lived close enough to the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne, muted the TV and scampered outside to hear the noise emanating from the world's most sophisticated racing machines with your own ears from afar? Piastri did, regularly.
"I could actually hear the cars from my house, which was a long way away – 15-20 kilometres away from Albert Park," a grinning Piastri tells the Australian Grand Prix's In the Fast Lane podcast.
"So the first memories I have was watching them on TV and then running out to the backyard and hearing them …".
Fast-forward a few short years, and Piastri has an altogether closer proximity to the 2022 return of F1® to his home city. As Alpine's reserve driver, he'll be in the eye of the storm, traversing the Melbourne Walk on the way to work, sitting in every engineering briefing, doing everything you need to do to be ready to race without unless something unforeseen happens, racing.
"I'm not on the grid so it's not fully my first (home) Grand Prix," he muses, "but to have that experience as even a reserve driver is going to be pretty special."
'Pretty special' is just one of the terms tagged to the 20-year-old after his past three years have ended the same way – with title silverware. The Formula Renault Eurocup winner in 2019, Piastri moved to FIA Formula 3 for 2020 – and won that as a rookie. As an encore to his encore, he repeated the feat in F2 as a first-time racer last year.
This year is all about watching, learning, waiting, biding his time. For how long? That much we don't know. But who is Oscar Piastri, how did he get to here, and what happens next? Let's look.
Piastri's credentials to already have a Formula 1® race seat couldn't be clearer. The Australian etched his name in the record books alongside Charles Leclerc (2016-17) and George Russell (2017-18) as the only drivers to have won the F3® and F2® titles in consecutive years, and we've already seen what that pair of 24-year-olds have done in the top flight; Leclerc is already a multi-time Grand Prix winner, and Russell will surely be likewise before too long.
So why isn't he already on the grid? One, there was no room at Alpine with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Grand Prix race-winner, Esteban Ocon, under contract, and two, there was precious little churn elsewhere as most teams elected to make minimal changes as F1®'s new regulations – and very different cars – came on stream.
With recycled pair Alex Albon (Williams) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas) back into the sport at two of the grid's lower-end teams, the only rookie on this year's grid is China's Zhou Guanyu, who Piastri beat in F2® last year, but offered a combination of pace and commercial backing that proved irresistible to Alfa Romeo.
For the first time since he began karting in 2011, Piastri doesn’t have a championship to contest this year, and acknowledges the hunger pangs for competition kicked in when the lights went out to start the 2022 season.
"That's something I'm trying to deal with," he admits.
"Being at the first race weekend in Bahrain re-ignited that competitive spirit, and I can't lie, it was a little disappointing to watch everyone going racing whilst I was watching."
Piastri sealed his F2® title last year with an emphatic run of three wins in the final five races, and is letting the feeling of those good times linger.
"The thing I've got going for me is that I have those championships on my CV, and they don't disappear," he says.
"The saying is 'you're only as good as your last race' … and I won my last race, so I'm trying to focus on that!
"Sim racing … it's not quite the same but it's pretty nuts how close sim racing can get (to the real thing) these days. That's my main way of keeping my competitive side going at the moment."
So Piastri will spend 2022 with his feet up, cooling his heels for when an F1® chance comes along? Hardly. The Australian is approaching each Grand Prix weekend as if he's driving for Alpine, and with good reason.
Already in 2022, Sebastian Vettel has missed races for Aston Martin with COVID-19, super-sub Nico Hulkenberg taking his fellow German's place. In Bahrain in 2020, Russell got an early taste of his future life at Mercedes when Lewis Hamilton was ruled out with COVID, young Briton Jack Aitken deputising at Williams for Russell.
The moral of the story: get ready, stay ready, and perfect that F1® racer's mindset.
"I prepare as if I am going racing, that’s the only way you can go about it," Piastri says.
"I don’t have the luxury of having a few weeks or a month to prepare myself, it can be a matter of a couple of days, a couple of hours. I have to try to keep myself as physically ready as possible, which is challenging without driving.
"I don't actually know how my neck would feel after a full weekend of F1 racing, but after the few test days I've done, I've got a pretty good idea. So, I'm just trying to keep myself physically ready and preparing as if I'm going to be needed every weekend."
Piastri shadows Alonso and Ocon throughout the race weekends, his ears and eyes open, his mind a sponge.
"With Fernando there, with all his experience, and Esteban, who's a race-winner as well, it's an amazing opportunity to be able to learn from those guys and really ask them questions to find out as much as I can," he says.
"Fernando, he's been through a lot of very different rule changes before so it's been very eye-opening watching how he's been going about that. Esteban, generally in life we have quite a bit more in common because the age difference is much smaller, so I've been getting on well with both of them."
Away from the glare of a Grand Prix weekend, Piastri has a packed program of tests planned in Alpine's 2021 car to keep his trademark touch and feel on-point.
"It's pretty much the only driving I'll do for the year," he says.
"That's where I can hone my skills, because there are a few differences between the junior categories and F1. There's a lot more buttons to push on the steering wheel, and a lot of other things you can change."
Yes, Piastri is tethered to Alpine … but what if his big career break came somewhere else? History shows that it's possible. Scan the 2022 grid, and a quarter of the drivers got their starts for teams other than the ones who paid their bills.
Red Bull-backed Daniel Ricciardo did half a season with the backmarker HRT squad in 2011 before getting promoted to Toro Rosso, while Ferrari juniors Leclerc (with Alfa Romeo) and Mick Schumacher (Haas) began their F1® journeys at alternative addresses.
Mercedes-backed Ocon (with Manor) and Russell (Williams) also started elsewhere, which means the timeline on Piastri's future F1® debut isn't necessarily wedded to the long-term plans for Alonso and Ocon at Alpine.
Ted Kravitz is one who feels Piastri could get his chance elsewhere – and perhaps sooner rather than later. Asked on In the Fast Lane whether he could see Piastri on the 2023 F1® grid, the experienced Sky Sports F1® pit lane reporter quickly gravitated to a two-part answer.
"I would say yes, and I would say, Aston Martin," Kravitz says.
"There was something Sebastian (Vettel) said (in pre-season testing), it was an off-hand remark that said 'well, I'm not going to be here too long'. I think Seb has been waiting to see what this new generation of cars are like, whether that can rekindle his passion and mojo for F1, and I'm not sure it will.
"I can see Piastri getting a drive next year, and somewhere like Aston Martin. They may well have a vacancy."
Sitting out before stepping up is something that resonates with Alonso, who made his F1® debut for Minardi in Melbourne in 2001 – a month before Piastri was born – and then sacrificed 2002 before settling in at Renault the following year, where he won the first of his 32 Grands Prix in Hungary. Two years after that, the Spaniard became F1® world champion.
Alonso – of whom Kravitz says "I don't think (he's) going to retire until he's at least 45" – may be the cork in the bottle for Piastri's immediate Alpine ambitions, but is a believer in the Australian's bona fides.
"Oscar is obviously a very talented driver … he has a great future in Formula One," the 40-year-old Spaniard says.
"Now he's a reserve driver and I'm sure he will help us a lot in the simulator and coming to the races probably with some ideas and a different approach and we can benefit from it. I think he has a bright future."