Feature F1 Unlocked
PALMER: A win for Alonso in 2023? I wouldn’t bet against it after his Bahrain masterclass
Fernando Alonso has been waiting a decade for a car that he can compete with at the sharp end of Formula 1, and finally in 2023 it seems he has one.
The Aston Martin looked hooked up from the word go in pre-season. Felipe Drugovich was in the car on the first morning, and I went trackside to watch in the afternoon. It took a while for Fernando to emerge in the car, but from the very first lap I saw, he looked comfortable and was hustling on, visibly more than most others out there.
By the time we got to the race weekend, there was a palpable air of excitement for Aston Martin from the neutrals in the paddock, and a fear of them from their competitors, exaggerated by their practice-topping times.
While qualifying still shows that there is an outright pace deficit to the Red Bulls and even the Ferraris, the race pace is what had stood out more in testing, and we saw that come to fruition on Sunday.
Had Fernando not been hit by his team mate Lance Stroll on the opening lap, things might have played out more routinely for the Spaniard. As it was, it was fantastic for us that he did lose places to the Mercedes, because it was the catalyst for a spectacular charge towards a podium that surely would have been comfortable without the collision.
Whenever I was racing with Alonso wheel-to-wheel, he was always a different competitor compared to others I was up against. He has an incredible ability to read racing situations, has immense peripheral vision, and he can think a few corners ahead when trying to plan out a clinical overtake.
Even at 41, those are exactly the qualities he displayed on Sunday.
After a more straightforward pass on a tyre-hobbled George Russell, Fernando found himself up against Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz in a battle that decided the final podium spot.
Actually, in both passes he made uncharacteristic mistakes at Turn 4, losing the rear with a huge snap of oversteer against Hamilton, and understeering wide into Sainz – a lapse that could have proven disastrous.
But the Aston Martin car was so good on its tyres, and Fernando’s ability on the brakes was so exceptional that he could follow through all of the slower corners in the middle of the circuit, each time threatening a move, before the decisive Turn 10.
Hamilton wouldn’t have expected Alonso to take the Turn 10 dive that he did; it’s not really an overtaking area, particularly in Formula 1, and when you are braking and turning with load, it’s so easy to snatch the left-front brake.
Alonso set the move up nicely by opening the entry to the corner, allowing him to straight-line the braking as much as possible and sneak up the inside of the Mercedes, taking the DRS on the exit in the process.
He was setting up the same move on Sainz, but his compatriot tried to cover it off, resulting in a lock-up. Sainz was tighter into the corner than Alonso and therefore had to brake with more steering lock to cover the inside, which was always going to be problematic. The Aston Martin swept around the Ferrari driver on the exit with a maximised slipstream and DRS, into his eventual podium place.
I love the passes he made, because it’s so rare these days that drivers go wheel-to-wheel in this old-fashioned way. More and more racetracks seem to be designed for DRS passes with mammoth straights and then big braking zones, followed by more DRS if possible on the exit.
Bahrain is no exception, but a mix of Aston Martin not having the fastest car in a straight line and Alonso’s errors at Turn 4 meant he had to think outside the box – and he was the right man for it, putting on a treat of a spectacle for us.
Would Alonso have overcome Leclerc?
Whether he would have been able to fight with Leclerc for a genuine podium, before the lead Ferrari stopped, is debatable. He was 12 seconds behind Leclerc at the time, and managed to find at least that amount of time over Sainz in the remainder of the race, despite quite clearly relaxing into a measured third place, while Sainz was being forced to push to the end because of Hamilton’s threat behind.
There’s no doubt the Aston Martin was the faster car in race trim and without his team mate’s Lap 1 intervention, it surely would have been comfortable, even though Leclerc started the race on new tyres.
Whilst Stroll’s Lap 1 mistake was unfortunate and he was lucky to get away with it without the embarrassment of an Aston Martin catastrophe, the remainder of his race was also stoic, considering his injuries. His performance further underlines the position Aston Martin is in right now.
The question is, where do they go from here? Was it track-specific? Bahrain definitely suited them, being a high degradation circuit. Ferrari will surely be more competitive at other venues coming up when their tyre management issues aren’t so badly exposed.
Aston Martin have given themselves a wonderful baseline for the year though, and with considerably more development time than their front-running rivals, you have to believe that this could be the year Alonso breaks his long win draught. There’s one thing for sure though: for all his years in the midfield doldrums, Fernando Alonso’s not lost any of his skill – or appetite.