LONG READ: Why Alfa Romeo’s lean 2021 is paying dividends in 2022
Alfa Romeo have emerged as a contender for best of the rest in 2022, the Swiss team seeing one of the biggest – if not the biggest – performance swings from last year into this year. F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto sat down with their straight-talking Team Principal Fred Vasseur to find out how the Sauber-run operation have gone from backmarkers to regular points scorers – and genuine contenders for P4 in the constructors' championship.
The season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix summed up Alfa Romeo’s “painful” (as Vasseur puts it) 2021 campaign, with mechanical failures ending Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi’s respective races early. They managed just 13 points across 22 races to finish ninth in the constructors’ championship, the worst full season Vasseur had experienced since he joined in mid-2017.
The result, though, was not unexpected. For Vasseur, with the full support of the team’s Swedish billionaire owner Finn Rausing, this was a necessary pain. It was decided that there would be no development for the entire 2021 season. The car that Raikkonen and Giovinazzi had at race one would be the same as the one they had in Abu Dhabi. They accepted performance would tail off as the year went on, with rivals pushing on with upgrades and finding more pace.
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Instead, the technical team – led by Jan Monchaux – were given all that cash to spend on the 2022 car, which was designed to sweeping new regulations and thus gave the Swiss squad a chance to make a big step forward this season.
They used every minute of this creative thinking time and all of their wind tunnel runs and CFD allowance on the C42 – and the result was “an extreme design” that yielded one of the most refined and detailed cars in launch season. “It was difficult for the team, but it’s paying off,” says Vasseur.
Paying off it is. After nine races, they have 51 points, nearly four times the tally they managed in the whole of last year. The car – one of the most detailed on the grid – is capable of scoring points in every race, with Q2 the minimum in qualifying. It’s a massive step forward.
But their turnaround in form is much more than that one decision to focus everything on 2022. The Ferrari power unit they run, courtesy of a strong relationship that goes back to 2010, has made “a good step” forward, according to Vasseur. And they are benefitting from some impressive recruitment of drivers.
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Ten-time winner Valtteri Bottas joined the outfit from Mercedes – and has looked reborn. He’s revelling in the chance to lead the team and step out of Lewis Hamilton’s shadow. That injection of desire has driven up morale and delivered results consistently across the season. Of the 51 points scored, Bottas is responsible for 48 of them.
But that does not mean Zhou has disappointed. The Chinese driver has exceeded expectations, is a quick learner and is benefitting from being taken under the wing of Bottas. He scored a point on his debut, under the pressure of the world’s biggest nation, and would have scored more – beyond his superb eighth in Canada – had it not been for reliability.
It’s been Alfa Romeo's Achilles’ Heel – and without the string of mechanical issues, they would likely be a comfortable fourth in the constructors’ instead of sixth. Once they crack that, getting both cars into the points each race should become the minimum requirement.
“Part of the reliability issues are coming for us, part of the issues are coming from Ferrari,” says Vasseur. “In Ferrari, I have full trust they will fix it. I don’t want to be focused on this. On our side, we started on the wrong foot in Barcelona [in pre-season running] with bouncing and damaged the monocoque. As we were not able to repair on site, we lost the first few days. Then it was like a snowball: we wanted to come back too quickly and had more issues, mainly with Zhou, during the events. It’s been painful.”
Another element which has helped is the consistent financial support from owner Finn Rausing and title sponsor Alfa Romeo – plus the suite of commercial partners they have onboarded, including 27 new companies for this year.
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It doesn't mean they have an endless pit of money – Vasseur still had a budget to work with and because of increased freight costs, they had to stop development on the front wing which they planned for Silverstone. But they do have a solid financial base, and this has enabled the team to upgrade the Hinwil facility so that they can bring it up to the standard of F1’s leading teams.
"The hardware of the facility is a mega one,” says Vasseur. “But when BMW left [at the end of 2009] until 2016/2017, it was a tough time for the company. The level of investment was very low. The hardware looked very good, then when you look deeply in the details, it wasn’t so shiny! So we have spent the last three or four years investing a fortune to put the facility at the right level.
"We did a step in every single area, including the new simulator but also the software of the wind tunnel. We have invested a fortune and I think now we are at the level of F1. It’s one of the reasons behind the performance we’re showing this year.”
Vasseur says now the challenge is to steady the ship – and continue to strengthen. They are currently just below the cost cap – but he hopes they will be at it by next year. The focus will be on spending money wisely and efficiently, making steps year on year rather than trying to run before you can walk and risk dropping all the way back again. He hopes their experience of operating on a leaner budget will pay dividends in the years ahead.
“It’s pointless to be P5 if you go back and fight with the medical car next year!” he says. “The new regulations and the cost cap – we knew it was an opportunity for us. Technology is a big advantage for the top teams; they have developed technology before the cost cap. There is still an advantage today and they will probably have this over the next two or three seasons. But we are more used to dealing with this kind of [smaller] budget, so mid-term view, we can be optimistic."
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With the rules remaining stable next year, the key to achieving the first step of stability is making the right decisions on which parts to carry into next year and which they can afford to revise based on learnings in 2022.
"If you want to be efficient, we will have to do carryover components," says Vasseur. "We are in the process to decide what we will carry over. We will take different options in terms of cooling, suspension and so on. This is the life of an engineer – they want to reinvent the wheel every year! If we want to be efficient and have the budget to develop our car through the year, we have to do some carry over.
"We will not stop the development of the current car but some of that development will be carryover for next year. It is much less of an issue this season than it was last year. As we knew we wouldn't bring updates over the season, we were much more focused on operations and I think it was very useful for our global performance."
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Alfa Romeo have done what they set out to do – take advantage of a large regulation change to make a big step up the constructors' pecking order. For a team on one of the smallest budgets in F1, that is impressive. It's not been completely smooth sailing, courtesy of some poor reliability, but these are minor issues which can be recovered. The baseline of the car is strong – and offers them the platform to build into the future.
Stabilise, as Vasseur targets, and there'll be exciting times ahead.