Former 'grid kid' Piastri braces for home debut at Albert Park

MELBOURNE, March 30 (Reuters) - McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri is hoping his Australian Grand Prix debut will go smoother than his appearance as a "grid kid" at Albert Park in 2015 when he was left holding a flag for an absent driver.

As a motor sport-obsessed schoolboy, Piastri came to the lakeside circuit expecting to meet Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat before the 2015 race but found himself standing in front of a vacant space on the grid with the Russian nowhere to be seen.

"I was holding Daniil Kvyat's flag and he broke down on the lap to the grid, so I never actually go to see him," the 21-year-old told reporters at Albert Park on Thursday.

"It's pretty special having someone hold my flag this time. Hopefully I have better luck."

Piastri will be the focus for home fans on Sunday, having taken compatriot Daniel Ricciardo's race seat after being a reserve driver for Alpine last season.

The popular Ricciardo is now a reserve driver at Red Bull while also lapping up his off-track role as a hype-man for the Australian race.

Ricciardo was never able to manage a podium at his home race when driving for Toro Rosso, Red Bull, Renault and McLaren, suffering a slew of non-finishes.

Piastri now faces the same battle to meet great expectations, having been hyped as a major talent since winning both the F3 and F2 series.

A Melbourne boy who grew up in an affluent bayside suburb a few miles south of the racetrack, Piastri played plenty of cricket and Australian Rules football on the sports fields around Albert Park.

But Sunday will be his first ever car race in the country, having moved to Britain in 2016 to develop his career.

He has a mentor in Mark Webber, another Australian F1 driver who was unable to make a podium at Albert Park but has helped Piastri's transition from minor circuit star to the F1 big-time.

Piastri's entry into F1 has been far from triumphant, with a retirement in his debut race in the Bahrain season-opener and a 15th-place finish in the last race in Saudi Arabia, two spots ahead of team mate Lando Norris.

In Jeddah, Piastri lost part of his front wing in a first-corner clash and the debris forced Norris to pit early with damage to his own front wing.

Having missed development targets, the McLaren car has been an early season flop, and winning a championship point may be the limit of Piastri's ambitions in Melbourne.

"Hopefully we can have a clean race and my front wing doesn’t wipe out Lando this time," he said.

Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.