Daniel Ricciardo is set to be replaced at McLaren for the 2023 Formula 1 season by Oscar Piastri.
Ricciardo has reportedly been asked to make way for his countryman for next season, despite holding a valid contract with the team.
In turn, Piastri will join the Woking squad alongside Lando Norris on a two-plus-one deal.
All this comes despite the stated position from Alpine to the contrary, and radio silence from McLaren.
The motorsport world has run rampant since Monday, when Fernando Alonso’s decision to join Aston Martin for 2023 was announced.
On Friday, it was revealed that Piastri had signed a deal with McLaren for next year, which had been accepted by the Contract Recognition Board, a facility of the FIA.
The primary function of the CRB is to provide a resolution to driver contract disputes in days rather than weeks, without needing to involve expensive legal proceedings.
It is a body which is included in the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, and is cited in Schedule 11 of the Concorde Agreement, the commercial contract between teams and the sport’s rights holder (Liberty Media).
The CRB is understood to have deemed McLaren holds a valid contract with Piastri for 2023.
Effectively it means, at least in the eyes of the FIA, Alpine has no legal claim to the Australian.
That isn’t necessarily the end of the affair, though pursuing it further opens a costly legal pandoras box, and draws aspects of the Concorde agreement itself into question.
On Tuesday when he spoke with the media, Szafnauer stated Alpine’s position and opinion on the matter.
His comments pre-date Alpine’s ‘confirmation’ of Piastri, but provide insight into the thinking at Enstone.
“I’m not privy to whatever pre-arrangements he [Piastri] has with McLaren, if any at all, but I hear the same rumours that you do,” Szafnauer began.
“But what I do know is that he does have contractual obligations to us, and we do to him.
“We’ve been honouring those obligations all year, and those obligations last through ‘23 and possibly in ’24 if some options are taken up.
“Our obligations to him this year was to be a reserve driver, to also put him in last year’s car for a significant amount of time – we’re well over half that programme of 5000 kilometres, which isn’t insignificant, in last year’s car in preparation for a race seat next year – also Free Practice 1s, some simulator work.
“We’ve been performing those obligations on both sides,” he added.
“So he’s been performing, we’ve been performing, so therefore we do have a legal contract with him in the future for ‘23 and, if an option is taken up, for ’24.
“I don’t know what he’s done with McLaren, like I said, I’m not privy to that.”
It’s thought Piastri signed a deal with McLaren over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, and was lodged with the CRB on July 30, prior to Alonso’s departure from Alpine.
Szafnauer said he only learned of the Spaniard’s defection through the media on Monday.
He then spoke with the media on Tuesday morning, having spent the previous afternoon fielding calls from prospective drivers.
It leaves precious little time to have got to the bottom of Piastri’s contract situation to understand exactly what rights Alpine has over him.
Nonetheless, Szafnauer is adamant that his team has a valid claim over the Melburnian, and believes it is Alpine which is entitled to decide where he drives in 2023.
“So the contractual terms, you know that those details we don’t like to disclose, but it was on the team’s side to say, not on the driver side,” he said.
He went on to explain the process of contractually converting Piastri from the team’s reserve driver to a full-time racer.
“There are some considerations of going from a reserve driver contract with options, to become a racing driver, to that racing driver contract,” he stated.
“But we’re absolutely in the position to take him.
“It’s just when you switch to racing driver; a racing driver these days signs, some of them, four different contracts.
“There’s commercial agreements, testing agreements, racing agreements, link agreements, there’s all that kind of stuff. And those are for all sorts of different considerations.
“When you move from reserve driver to racing driver, all that stuff has to happen too.
“But yes, we do have the right to take him.”
Szafnauer’s stance appears at odds with developments of the week as they’re understood to have transpired.
On the other side of the ledger, it’s suggested McLaren advised Ricciardo over the course of the Hungarian Grand Prix that he would be replaced by Piastri next season.
Should that indeed be the case, a settlement would need to be reached given the 33-year-old has a deal for 2023.
It’s understood the option to continue into next season sits on Ricciardo’s side, and would therefore need his cooperation.
Another possibility, should he not agree to step away, is Piastri taking on the reserve driver role at McLaren next year, then stepping into a race drive in 2024.
That is thought to be unlikely, with Ricciardo expected to reach a settlement and move on, freeing the pathway for his compatriot.
With few high calibre drivers and competitive seats on the market, the logical extension is therefore a return to Alpine.
It’s a move Szafnauer has suggested the operation would be open to.
“In the short term, we now have to replace Fernando with the absolute best driver, but what we mustn’t forget is we have [a] 100 race plan to start winning races and vying for a championship,” Szafnauer explained.
“We’re over 10 races into that, so we’ve got 80-some races left.
“The choice for us has to be one that complements that goal.
“That driver that sits next to Esteban [Ocon] has to be the best choice for us, that complements and helps us attain that goal.
“If you looked at Fernando, for example, he comes and goes, and I think that happens to other drivers too,” he added specifically referring to a Ricciardo return.
“I don’t think that’s an issue at all.
“I think what we need to focus on, for the plans that we have, for the next 89/88 races.
“We’ve got to make sure that we complement that plan with the best driver that we can, and there are some options out there for us.”