National Motorsport Academy

Using the Motorsport Media: Alpine vs Piastri

Each year the motorsport media starts speculating earlier and earlier as to who will stay, move or retire at the end of the season. There’s always a bit of drama too but usually this comes from the drivers, not the teams. This year’s silly season saw an embarrassing drama unfold for Alpine when they announced that Oscar Piastri would be joining them in 2023 – only for him to refute the statement and join McLaren. Here, Business of Motorsport tutor and contracts expert Gen looks at the mess…..

Silly Season

On your mark… get set… go! Until early last month, however, the question looming for some Formula 1 drivers was where?

The drama of this year’s silly season began with Sebastian Vettel announcing his retirement at the close of the 2022 season. Vettel – a four-time world champion – hoped that Mick Schumacher would take his place with Aston Martin, but Aston Martin had its sights on a different champion: Fernando Alonso. Despite Alonso being an obvious contender for Vettel’s spot, the expediency with which Aston Martin signed Alonso shocked the motorsport world – including Alpine, Alonso’s current team – who learned of his new contract via Aston’s Martin’s press release on August 1st.

Grappling with the loss of their star driver, Alpine boldly announced that their 21 year old reserve driver, and reigning Formula 2 champion, Oscar Piastri would replace Alonso next season. But there was just one problem – Alpine never consulted Piastri before the announcement. Like the rest of the world, Piastri learned of his fate via Alpine’s press release on August 2nd. Less than two hours after Alpine’s release, Piastri tweeted that Alpine was “wrong” and that he would “not be driving for Alpine next year.” Instead, and perhaps known to Alpine notwithstanding their impulsive press release, Piastri appeared to be closing in on a future with McLaren.

You can read more on the source of this story here: Laurence Edmondson, How Did Alpine End Up In Such a Mess With Its Drivers?, ESPN (Aug. 2, 2022), 

A Binding Contract

Prior to Alonso announcing his departure for Aston Martin, Piastri’s future with Alpine was not guaranteed. In fact, Alpine was looking to place Piastri elsewhere in order to make “a return on its investment” in Piastri’s career. To make things even more chaotic, the FIA Contract Recognition Board initially acknowledged that both Alpine and McLaren’s contracts with Piastri were valid for 2023. Some motorsport commentators viewed Alpine’s stunt with Piastri as an attempt to bind the young driver into his contract, thereby inviting a high-profile legal battle at the 21-year-old’s expense. Whether or not that intention was true, it raises important concerns about the intersection of contract law and motorsport. Or, perhaps, professional sport more generally.

Jon Wilde, Oscar Piastri Reportedly Has Two Valid Contracts, Court Case Looming, Planet F1 (Aug. 9, 2022), 

Playing by the Rules

Arthur Taylor von Mehren defines a contract in its very simplest form as a ‘promise enforceable by law’. But it’s actually much more complex if you read his full entry in Britannica.

Contract law, as a body of legal principle, “strives to give legal expression to the endlessly varying desires and purposes that human beings seek to express and forward by assuming legal obligations.” Without getting into the intricacies of the different forms contracts can take, and the various provisions they may contain, much of contract law “is concerned with ensuring that agreements are arrived at in a way that meets minimum standards respecting both parties’ understanding of the transactions.” Before two parties are bound together by a set of obligations, it is important that each party had the complete freedom to enter into the agreement. Once the hurdle of fair entry is cleared, contracts function to hold parties accountable to each other. Just like sport, contracts lay out the rules that everyone is supposed to play by.

Binding Contracts

So, what happens when one person is allegedly bound by two competing contracts? That was the question posed to FIA’s Contract Recognition Board (CRB) following the back-and-forth between Alpine and Piastri on August 2nd. The CRB convened on August 29th to address the dispute between Alpine and McLaren as to who was entitled to have Piastri on their team. In a unanimous decision, the CRB ruled that Piastri’s contract with McLaren was “the only Contract to be recognised by the Board.” The Board went on to affirm that “Mr. Piastri is entitled to drive for McLaren Racing Limited for the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Fortunately for Piastri and McLaren, the CRB resolved the contract dispute in their favour. However, given the dispute had to be decided by the CRB in the first place, the outcome could have been much different. If the CRB had found that the Alpine-Piastri contract was the only valid contract of the two, Piastri would be looking at a very different season. If that were the case, Piastri would have had to publicly go back on his own word; and, more critically, he would be racing for a team that attempted to exploit his commitment by going public before they confirmed that decision with him. Alpine’s stunt reminds us that even if a contract between a team and its driver is valid, there is disparate bargaining power between the two parties. This disparate bargaining power, if unchallenged in situations like Piastri’s, risks emotional and reputational harm for motorsport drivers.

Lasting Damage

Even though Piastri is officially entitled to race with McLaren for the upcoming season, he remains disheartened with how his departure with Alpine unfolded. When Piastri refuted Alpine’s announcement on August 1st, it was the first time many of his Alpine teammates learned that he had been in communication with McLaren. Alpine’s press release did more than just implicate Piastri legally – it ultimately robbed him of the meaningful goodbye he wanted to give to his Alpine family.

As the motorsport world moves forward from a summer of publicity stunts and contractual uncertainties, hopefully the lessons of Piastri’s departure from Alpine will resonate with other Formula 1 teams. If Alpine had been more transparent about Piastri’s future with them, this entire situation may have been avoided. But even so, using the media for contractual gain against Piastri sends the wrong message to teams, athletes, and fans everywhere; and Formula 1 drivers deserve better. My final thought on this is that it is  worth noting of course, that it’s not only the sport of motors that is less than transparent when it comes to contracts and the futures of athletes.


Picture of Gen Gordon-Thomson

Gen Gordon-Thomson

Gen is the course leader on the NMA's Business of Motorsport Master's degree. An expert in international sports law and policy, she also sits on the British Association of Sport & Law Board.

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