Being around 16,000 kilometres away from the action has never been much of an impediment to Australians making an impact in Formula 1, but we’ve never dominated the news cycle quite like this.
Through the chaos of the 2023 driver market, which set itself ablaze on Monday, Australians are the common thread, and at the centre of this patriotic rumble is Mark Webber.
Webber has fashioned himself into a driver manager in his post-racing career, and Oscar Piastri is his prized asset. The 21-year-old reigning Formula 2 champion is the hottest property in Formula 1 without a confirmed seat on the grid, and as the last few days have demonstrated, he’s in serious demand.
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But the pathway from the junior categories to F1 has been rockier than Piastri’s talent should have warranted, and in his and Webber’s eagerness to lock down a seat on the grid as soon as possible they’ve engaged in a collision course with a third Australian, Daniel Ricciardo, and the McLaren team to which he still has a valid contract.
And so the biggest chapter in the driver market is being written by three Australians, who between them hold the keys to the midfield’s most competitive drives.
On Friday night it was widely reported McLaren had made the call to replace Ricciardo with Piastri.
How did we get here?
WHO IS MARK WEBBER AND WHY IS HE MANAGING PIASTRI?
Mark Webber is the second longest serving Formula 1 driver in Australian history, with 215 grand prix starts to his name. He was pipped by Ricciardo on that count only this year.
He’s also the country’s third most successful grand prix driver courtesy of his nine victories and 42 podium finishes, behind only three-time champion Jack Brabham and 1980 title winner Alan Jones.
Webber came close to joining them on the honour role, but crowning glory ultimately proved elusive despite him playing a key part of Red Bull Racing’s dominant four-year spell in 2010-13, with all four years won and sometimes dominated by teammate Sebastian Vettel.
He retired from the sport in 2014, paving the way for Daniel Ricciardo’s promotion to Red Bull Racing that year — Ricciardo beat Vettel in their first season as teammates; ironically that set in motion the events that led to the current impasse — and switched to sports car racing with Porsche.
His three-year stint delivered him the world championship in 2015 and a second-place finish at Le Mans. He retired from racing at the end of 2016.
But his post-racing life has arguably been busier than his competitive career. Not only is he a regular TV pundit in the UK, but he’s also opened a talent management business, JAM Sports Management, with his wife and long-time manager, Ann, and sport CEO Jason Allen.
The seeds of Webber’s interest in supporting talent were sown early in his own career.
In 1997, when he was still establishing himself in Europe and was yet to turn professional, he faced a critical shortage of money that threatened to end his single-seater career on the spot.
He approached iconic Wallabies player David Campese, who was in the twilight of his career and in the process of establishing a management company in Australia, for help. Not only did Campese induct his compatriot into his management firm, but he personally loaned him the money needed to continue racing in the short term.
“It was an extraordinary gesture that let us battle on,” Webber recounted in his autobiography, Aussie Grit. “I have never forgotten about hunger, determination — and the need to lend an occasional hand.”
That lesson was put into practice once Webber cracked Formula 1.
He offered support to fellow Aussie Will Power when he was in need — Power went on to win the 2014 IndyCar championship and is a leading contender again this season — and also made some early forays into management along with Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner via their joint management of the former MW Arden GP3 team.
Kiwi Mitch Evans was one of his first signings — he’s now a Formula E stalwart racing with Jaguar and still contracted to Webber via JAM — and he even had his trainer help Ricciardo prepare for his first F1 test.
“While they still need to posses that raw hunger, drive and determination, it seems only logical that young drivers should learn from what I achieved or how I coped with all those setbacks on the way through,” Webber wrote. “David Campese, just to repeat the clearest example, was trying to give a young Aussie bloke wings when he helped me all those years ago.
“In motor racing and elsewhere I want to give something back in my own modest way in terms of helping people realise their potential.”
It’s through JAM that he began representing Piastri in 2020. The deal involves Webber acting as an on-track mentor as well as off-track manager, acting on his behalf in discussions and negotiations with teams. Ann Webber and Jason Allen manage Piastri’s commercial affairs.
Webber facilitated Piastri’s induction into the Renault junior driver academy that ultimately accelerated his progress through Formula 3 and Formula 2 before delivering him to the reserve driver role for Alpine this season — and, one assumes, a full-time drive next season.
It’s just a matter of where.
WHAT’S THE McLAREN CONNECTION?
Talks with McLaren have been ongoing for at least a month, at least informally, despite Piastri’s ties to Alpine.
As explained here earlier this week, it seems the Piastri camp was disillusioned with the prospect of spending several years at backmarker Williams, to which the team intended to loan him while Fernando Alonso continued at Alpine.
Further, because negotiations with Alonso were dragging on — the Spaniard even suggested before his explosive switch to Aston Martin that he didn’t want to get into detailed talks before the mid-season break — there was a risk the driver market would rush past the slow-moving Alpine.
Logan Sargeant was also mounting a Formula 2 title challenge in July. The American is Williams’s reserve and development driver, and an F2 title would presumably have seen him leapfrog Piastri for the second seat at Grove.
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McLaren wasn’t an obvious choice on paper given it already had Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo under contract for next season, but Webber had an easy foot in the door via Andreas Seidl.
Seidl joined McLaren in 2019 after a five-year stint at the helm of Porsche’s LMP1 program. He was team principal during Webber’s three-year tenure at the team, including in his championship-winning 2015 season.
Despite McLaren’s public showings of support for Ricciardo through his difficult first half of the year, it would’ve become clear to Webber early in any talks that the team was losing faith in the 33-year-old’s ability to get to grips with the McLaren car that’s caused him so much grief in the 18 months he’s been at Woking.
The wheels were set in motion.
WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?
Zooming out, it seems odd for Piastri to be causing himself and his current employer so much anguish for a sideways move — in fact Alpine is just ahead of McLaren in the constructors standings in the fight for fourth. Surely the easier thing to do would be to accept a guaranteed full-time, long-term deal with Alpine, having spent so much time acquainting himself with the team.
There can be only two possible explanations, and both involve Fernando Alonso.
The first possibility is that Webber and Piastri were simply in too deep when Alonso suddenly announced he was leaving Alpine. Up until Sunday night in Hungary there was no indication he was set to pull the plug — in fact team principal Otmar Szafnauer said the first notification he got of the split was the press release.
A precontract has been speculated to have already been signed with McLaren, and Piastri’s management would appear to be of the opinion that he had some level of free agency on 31 July or 1 August, the latter happening to be the date Alonso made his announcement. The deal with McLaren may have already become active before the Alpine drive was on the table.
And you can’t blame Piastri’s management for trying to find him a competitive seat given Szafnauer has admitted Alonso would have had the opportunity to keep rolling over single-year contracts as long as he remained competitive, potentially delaying the Aussie’s promotion indefinitely.
The other possibility is that Webber and Piastri simply wanted out of Alpine.
There’s no obvious reason as to why this would be, but the fact the team appears to have mishandled negotiations with its two star drivers so badly that it may well lose both of them and be forced to accept the scraps of the silly season is a sign that all may not be well at the French team, at least on an administrative level.
In that case it’s also not beyond the realms of possibility that Alonso and Webber, who are friends and used to share a manager in Flavio Briatore — and Briatore still represents Alonso — ensured that the timing of their announcements maximised Piastri’s chance to wriggle out of his obligations to Alpine.
That said, Alonso’s Aston Martin deal appears to have been done in record time and was reportedly signed on Sunday night, suggesting it was announced at the earliest opportunity.
HOW WILL THIS END?
There are only two pieces of the puzzle still to place. The first is whether Alpine will pursue legal action to settle whether its contractual hold over Piastri is still valid.
The FIA Contract Recognition Board — set up to deal specifically with these kinds of incidents — will be the first port of call, after which the matter could even be escalated to a courtroom.
If settled in Alpine’s favour, this whole messy saga will blow up spectacularly in Webber’s face, not only for directing this high-profile split but also for potentially tarnishing Piastri’s reputation as a fair dealer before his F1 career has even started.
It’s worth remembering that Jenson Button went through an almost identical situation in 2004-05 when his management attempted to engineer a switch from BAR to Williams. The CRB forced him to stay at BAR, and his manager was dismissed for bad advice.
McLaren will also come away tarnished. It’s in an extremely similar situation with Alex Palou in IndyCar, over whom Chip Ganassi Racing still lays claim. To get into two major contract disputes in the space of a month isn’t a great look.
But Piastri’s definitive social media message that he “will not be driving for Alpine next year” doesn’t betray any level of uncertainty, in which case the only holdup in confirming him at McLaren is Daniel Ricciardo.
McLaren has no triggers to cancel Ricciardo’s contract. Its only two options are for Ricciardo to leave on his own volition — which the Associated Press has reported he has until September to decide on — or to pay him out either in full or in a negotiated settlement.
We can view Zak Brown’s earlier commentary about unmet expectations as a push for the former and Ricciardo’s more recent statement of defiance on social media that he won’t quit as a push for the latter.
Whatever the ultimate conclusion, it will be decided by Formula 1’s three more foremost Australians, who for at least week and probably longer have the undivided attention of the F1 world.