Feature F1 Unlocked
‘We’ve got some big ideas’ – After a turbulent 2023, tech chief Matt Harman explains Alpine’s plan to turn it around this year
The 2023 Formula 1 campaign was a chastening one for Alpine.
Yes, they scored two podiums – one for Esteban Ocon in Monaco and the other for Pierre Gasly at Zandvoort – and secured a chunky $200m cash injection from a group of investors that included Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds.
But they delivered a car that had a very narrow operating window, which made extracting consistent performance difficult. They lost most of their senior management, with CEO Laurent Rossi, Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer, technical chief Pat Fry and Sporting Director Alan Permane all leaving.
And they spent most of the year in no man’s land, ending the season in sixth – 160 points shy of Aston Martin and 92 ahead of Williams. This was particularly painful as they had hoped to close the gap to the big three – Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari – rather than fall back two spots, behind McLaren and Aston Martin.
“I think we got a little bit outgunned aerodynamically by some other cars,” explains Technical Director Matt Harman. “We did make some ground at the start of the season on the people we were targeting.
“But there were some notable teams that had made a bigger step than we did. Some of that is to do with pure load on the car, pure development and the amount of load we’re able to put on the car. Some of it was the understanding we needed to extract from the car in the way in which we operate it.
“There have been experiments going on throughout the year to try and get to the bottom of that. Some of it has been visible, some of it hasn’t been so visible. We hope to use that learning to try and get a more positive result this year.”
This was a shock to a team who were cautiously optimistic about their chances during testing last February – and genuinely harboured hopes of moving into the mix at the sharp end – but then realised the stark reality that lay ahead of them once all the cars started to stretch their legs in the opening few races and a pecking order emerged.
“We didn’t really get to grips with the car until the second, third, maybe fourth event,” says Harman. “That’s quite unlike us. We have a very capable trackside engineering team – in conjunction with the factory, [but] it took us a while to get to grips with that.
“It’s not because it’s difficult to set up, it’s because the window is so narrow – so you’re having to make compromises. It’s tricky. You go to a circuit where ride is important to the driver – and we can’t put the car there because of the performance loss.”
Even after that bad start, which also saw a series of mistakes that led to a public dressing down by then boss Rossi, the team believed they could claw back performance, not least because their in-season development the previous season had been impressive as every update they brought seemed to bring lap time.
However, they were unable to repeat the trick in 2023 with the A523 and ultimately realised that the car had a ceiling that would prevent them making big steps in the short term. With that in mind, Alpine’s new machine will be more of an overhaul, rather than an evolution in a bid to find a wider operating window.
“We didn’t do as well as we did on the A522 – we had a great year that year,” says Harman. “Every time we touched the development of the car, we put load on, and we took a lot of weight off the car – there was a lot of performance to be had.
“It’s become trickier. You have to get into more detail so we have to be more careful in how we invest the money. I don’t think this year has been as successful as the A522.
“That’s why for the following year’s car we have had to unlock some real estate again, which is why the car is completely new from front to back. You’ll see that up and down the grid because the car has to last for a couple of years while we look for the future.”
Alpine concede their power unit is down on grunt relative to their rivals – but as the regulations are frozen until the end of 2025 (ahead of the introduction of new PUs that will use 100% sustainable fuel) there’s little they can do and must find other ways – such as through aero – to claw back the deficit.
“We have the technology and capability to put the power unit where we would like it to be, we just ran out of time on the RE22,” says Harman. “We were very courageous with that engine. OK it’s a bit behind where we would like it to be but it used to be a long way behind. We made a big step, but we didn’t quite get there enough.
“We couldn’t take anymore risks than we did. It would have been nice to have it unlocked for a little while to do that again but in the end, it’s also important to note we have another power unit to do at the moment. That’s a big focus for the team – and that’s where we see our future.
“We took a decision in the end to focus on the future, and we’ll deal with this power unit for the next two years by trying to remove some of its losses and everything we can do within these regulations.”
The 2026 rule cycle change offers every team up and down the grid the opportunity to make a big move – in either direction – in the pecking order. It’s no surprise, then, that after a stunted season last time around, Alpine are already heavily focused on a project that won’t break cover in public for another two years.
“Our focus is on the future and the 2026 regs as well as the cars we need to do between now and then,” says Harman. “We have got some big ideas for that . We have also got a big programme at both sites [their engine base at Viry, France, and their chassis HQ at Enstone, in the UK], to improve the capabilities and functions.”
There was an agreement to increase the limit on spending on capital expenditure, the amount of which depends on where you rank in the classification. Alpine were in the middle group and thus have an extra $13m (the top three teams can pump in an extra $6m, the bottom four can spend an additional $20m) to invest in improving infrastructure, including the introduction of a new simulator.
“You’ll have seen there are some CapEx equalisation topics that have gone on with the FIA,” says Harman. “We are fully funded to achieve those. We will put all those pieces of equipment in. They will be alive and working to feed into the 2026 regulations and also into cars well before that.
“We are focusing on our simulation tools, we need to be sharper, we need to be better at getting good answers to difficult questions more quickly. The plan that we have had for the last three years is from my perspective unchanged – we’re just accelerating it. We are well funded, we have enough people – it’s just about getting our heads down and getting on with it.
“[The simulator] was commissioned in readiness for 2026,” says Harman. “It’s being installed next year. It’ll sit in a massive building that’ll house some other interesting developments, so from my side I’m very excited about it.
“What we have right now is a very good tool, but its resolution bandwidth is not quite there, and I think this is going to give the drivers another level of confidence in the correlation of the sim, which for 2026 is going to be so important.”
Even though such a huge focus is being placed on 2026, Alpine know there is still so much they can learn from this season and the next. When it became clear the A523 was not the one, they made the early call to divert resources to this season’s machine – and thus hope they can make strides this season.
“We know we weren’t quite where we wanted to be [last] year,” says Harman. “We knew that our developments were plateauing a bit on the car because of limitations we had. It’s important to realise that – we call it understanding where you are on the S curve.
“When you know that you’re reaching that point, you’re better off understanding where you are in the championship and think to yourself, ‘let’s move over [to next year’s car]’.
“We moved over reasonably quickly. Mechanically, we had the car – we started the car in week 45 of 2022 so from a mechanical side of things, in terms of chassis and those pieces of equipment and getting a lot of mass out of the car, we started that very early. It’s something we do regularly now, but that was probably earlier than we have ever done.”
Time will tell if that early switch of focus will pay off…