Feature F1 Unlocked
Aston Martin are on the up – but is a fairytale victory in the works in 2023?
Is it possible that somewhere, deep within the bowels of their Silverstone factory, Aston Martin F1 are employing a wizard? In the normal course of events, the hard-headed, science-led F1 paddock doesn’t have much time for magicking, but after two races in which Aston Martin F1 (seventh in the standings in 2021 and 2022) have demonstrated themselves to be Red Bull Racing’s closest challenger on this year’s grid, the other explanations seem even less likely. So hocus-pocus it must be – unless F1 is changing faster than people think.
Conventional wisdom – pretty much discredited at this point – dictates change to be a glacial thing in the F1 pecking order. The occasional, wholesale re-imagining of the technical regulations provides an opportunity for a larger leap, but for the most part it’s a sport of increments. The big three teams are generally fighting among themselves, with everybody else squabbling over the coveted backhander title of ‘best of the rest’.
Occasionally, one of those Big Three may fall into their clutches, but traffic does not go the other way. The imposition of the cost-cap was designed to redress this imbalance – but the cost-cap is a long-term project, tilting the playing field back towards some semblance of flat across many years. In the short term, the bigger teams have the best facilities, best processes, best analytical tools, letting them extract maximum performance from design concepts ostensibly similar to those of their lesser-endowed rivals.
It’s this ability to exploit the details which – supposedly – creates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Not a space to be leapt, but one for the ambitious to bridge very carefully over a number of years. And yet, there’s Fernando Alonso, sprinting off the start line in Jeddah like a greased weasel, streaking into the lead on his way to his second podium of the season.
Aston Martin F1 Team Principal Mike Krack isn’t a believer in magic. In a statement to gladden the hearts of meritocrats everywhere, he ascribes the prowess of the AMR23 not to a novel aerodynamic concept or a piece of game-changing technology, but rather to putting in the hours and making the effort.
“I think it’s the result of continuous work,” he says. “There isn’t a magic button; there is not a particular item that you can look at and say: ‘this is making us now so much better’. We’ve tried to eliminate the weaknesses of the old car. We’ve recruited a couple of very good people that complement the people we already have, everyone is working well together and this allows us to progress. And it’s just that: continuous work on all areas of the car.”
Speaking to us before first practice in Jeddah, the mantra being repeated by Krack was that he was not – and we should not – leap to any conclusions about Aston Martin F1’s place in things. A good showing in winter testing and a spritely debut performance in Bahrain was not enough of a dataset with which to begin making pronouncements. The most he would allow was that his team has made progress.
“I think we’ve made a step,” he conceded, “but also, I think other teams have maybe done a little bit less of a good job, and that has helped us progress.” That level of expectation management, however, becomes a little more difficult to pull off after consecutive podiums – especially given the chalk-and-cheese nature of the Sakhir and Jeddah layouts. It begs the question: do Aston Martin F1 need to reassess their goals for the year ahead? Krack says not – or, at least, not yet.
“At this point, the plan has not changed. We need to see after Melbourne, maybe the fourth race also to understand where we are really. But finishing on the podium doesn’t affect our objectives. We haven’t predicted podiums, or a number of podiums; we won’t be predicting a championship position. For us, it was very important to make a step.
“We have signs that we have made one [but] to objectively find out where we are is not an easy task. After these races, then we can say where we are, we can readjust targets and understand the implications. We have a plan, and there is the cost-cap, so there are decisions to be made on whether to go flat-out with this, or change our development plan based on where we find ourselves.”
Krack’s reference to the cost-cap is interesting. Aston Martin F1 are perhaps the team for whom it might be considered a curse rather than a blessing. In any other sport, their up-tick in form might be expected: heavy investment usually brings rewards, and they’ve seen that over the last few seasons.
Following the purchase of a moribund Force India midway through 2018, the team was able to plan big. It had a recruitment drive: new facilities were green-lit – but it isn’t the work of a moment, and the cost-cap imposes the sort of financial discipline that makes rapid progress difficult to maintain. Eventually it will eliminate the distinction between the haves and the have-nots – but that may be somewhat grating for a team that’s recently come into money they now can’t spend.
Krack gives a ‘what can you do’ shrug. “The budget cap is a good thing,” he says. “If we zoom out, away from Aston Martin F1, it’s good for the sustainability of Formula 1. If you’re playing catch-up, it’s a little bit of an obstacle. You can’t go as quickly as you would like because investment is also capped. The teams that have invested in the past, that have the infrastructure, they have a relative advantage. We have to use the next few years to spend wisely on the things that bring real performance benefits, and eventually we can catch-up – but overall, I think the cap is the right thing.”
One area of business not affected by the cost-cap is the provision of driving talent, and Aston Martin F1 delivered quite the coup last summer, responding in short order to Sebastian Vettel’s notice of retirement with the announcement of Fernando Alonso as his replacement. It’s tempting to think of this as a like-for-like swap, each multiple champion bringing the same blend of pace and experience to the team – though Krack doesn’t quite see it that way.
“They’re very different – but similar,” he says. “In the race car, they’re both fast, both deliver, and they’re looking for the same things – but one is from a Latin background and the other is German, and the way they interact is a little bit different. Not better or worse – just different. We always need to learn how to communicate with our drivers: what does he want? What do we need from him? We realised with Fernando that he has a very efficient way of communicating, and we need to learn how to get the most from that.”
Unbidden, Krack is quick to praise Vettel’s input into the team across the previous two seasons. “Sebastian was instrumental in the progress of the team. His experience, his constructive input, the work he was prepared to put in, helped us get to where we are now. He was one of the first to get in touch after Fernando’s podium in Bahrain, which perhaps reflects the strength of the relationship. We’re keen to develop the same sort of relationship with Fernando, making him a key part of the team, just as we did with Sebastian, just as we do with Lance.”
Alonso, with characteristic pragmatism, used his post-race comments in Jeddah to announce himself pleased with the progress his new team has made over the winter, while also demanding there should be more to come over the coming months. Whether or not Alonso is granted his wish is a matter of some debate. If Aston Martin F1 – as looks plausible – have built a better car than the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, then it becomes a question of whether or not the team attempt to consolidate their good start to 2023.
The history of F1 is replete with teams that can design well and race well but not necessarily do both at the same time. Aston Martin F1 have some advantages in this regard; finishing seventh last year gives them, in the first part of this season, a rather more generous aerodynamic testing allowance than their current rivals. But this still comes at a price. The more work done keeping a ’23 car on the front rows, the less resource there is available for ’24.
While it sounds rather early to be concerned with next year’s project, the teams are well into the part of the cycle where resources are being diverted in that direction. Counter-intuitively, the direction to be taken by an ambitious team may not involve spending the rest of this year going toe-to-toe with the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes-AMG.
“We need to be realistic,” says Krack. “We have the three big teams: they have bigger infrastructure; they have more people, and they’re used to this game – more so than we are – of driving at the front. I think we need to do everything we can to keep up our development plan. We want to do what we think is right, independent of what others are doing. We’re not afraid of this.”
To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter which way Aston Martin F1 jump. Their performances on two very different circuits are more than just smoke and mirrors, they’re going to be in the thick of the action this weekend and for the foreseeable future. They’ve altered the dynamic at the head of the field and changed expectations regarding what is possible in the modern era.
This, no doubt, is causing consternation at other teams having to take a long, hard look at their own performance: McLaren have changed their technical leadership; Mercedes-AMG are musing in public about the foundations of their design direction; Ferrari are insisting they won’t panic – which is what teams in a panic say.
This is all good news for Aston Martin F1 who get some breathing space to look ahead rather than nervously looking behind. They don’t quite have the pace to take the challenge to Oracle Red Bull Racing at the moment, but if the reigning champions have a bad weekend, it’s the team from Silverstone best placed to take advantage of that.
The magical origins of a victory might be disputed – but it’d certainly be a fairytale.
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