Fernando Alonso’s standards set a high bar for Aston Martin to reach when he decided to join the ambitious Formula 1 team.
One of his grandest expectations looks, surprisingly, within reach already. Aston Martin is a year ahead of schedule. At least.
When Alonso’s bombshell move was announced last August he underlined the potential he saw in Aston Martin by declaring he intends to be victorious again in F1 and that nobody is “demonstrating a greater vision and absolute commitment to winning” than this team.
Three consecutive third-place finishes in three races to start 2023 has triggered an optimistic outlook from Alonso that, with a bit of assistance from Red Bull, race victories this year are possible. Not bad for a team that was last in the championship 12 months ago.
A common view in F1 when Alonso’s impending switch from Alpine to Aston Martin was announced was that Alonso was hitching his wagon to one of the best midfield options, if not the best, as a final punt for glory that came with a handsome pay-packet.
The move had merit. It also had the potential to crumble under the weight of its own expectation. And if it did succeed, it would be years in the making.
Alonso saw it as a project that might come to fruition before the end of his already prolonged career. But even he talked about his contribution potentially helping Aston Martin achieve bigger successes already after he’d stopped driving.
His most optimistic outlook did not consider the team leaping into instant podium contention in 2023, though. Alonso, totally unexpectedly, has had his best start to an F1 season in a decade.
Aston Martin is already as competitive now as most people would have imagined it would be at the end of Alonso’s time with the team – maybe even more. And asked by The Race when he thought this level would be achievable, Alonso says “next year” at the earliest.
“I was hoping [for] ’23 to be a learning season and in ’24 maybe to be challenging Ferraris and Mercedes and things like that,” says Alonso.
“But we challenged them in Bahrain in race one, so obviously now everything looks more optimistic.”
The bare statistics put Aston Martin’s leap in an astonishing context: seventh in the championship to second in the points early in 2023. However, Aston Martin itself is a little more cautious about this.
It feels like it ended last year as at least the sixth-fastest team, as it was fighting with McLaren and Alpine for points positions on a consistent basis.
Factor in Ferrari and Mercedes quite clearly encountering difficulties with the development of their respective cars, and underperforming for now, and in ‘normal’ circumstances Aston Martin would probably be fourth-fastest and knocking on the door of the top three.
So, it downplays the job slightly, seeing it less as ‘seventh to second’ and more like ‘sixth to a strong fourth’ if everyone had done the job they should have done.
That would still be an excellent winter’s work, of course. Especially as making a good car is one thing but delivering on the potential is another.
“It’s all to do with pace versus position, isn’t it?” says Aston Martin performance director Tom McCullough.
“So at the moment, if the Ferrari and the Mercedes were two or three tenths faster than they are [it would look different].
“Our distance from the front is what we’re really focused on. So yes, there’s some teams which may be similar to us, which means that we’re roughly second or third-ish at the moment.
“Did we expect to be here straight away? No. Is it nice to be fighting there? Yes. Is it going to be easy to stay there? No.
“We’ve got to develop the car, understand as much as we can, and just seize this opportunity.”
So far, Aston has. And Alonso has clearly contributed to that. McCullough joked early this year that “this is actually last year’s car, we’ve just got Fernando driving!” when asked about the impact Alonso has made.
In all seriousness, McCullough says: “You need a better car to go faster.” But Alonso has lifted Aston Martin’s game with “his motivation, his desire, his experience and his knowledge – he’s pushing us all really hard”.
At the same time, Aston Martin is operating more like a top team. Expectations have shifted – Alonso says now it’s aiming for “second or third or whatever” each weekend – and the two-time champion acknowledges the better-than-expected start has impacted how it is approaching race weekends mentally and in practice.
The approach has had to change to suit the fact Aston Martin needs to be in a position to fight top teams come Q3 and on Sunday. That plays very nicely with how ‘Team Silverstone’ has always set itself up. It has always been a well-prepared team that arrives at the track generally able to hit the ground running, with a focus on Sunday.
This is probably why Aston Martin has not looked daunted by finding itself in the fight for regular podiums sooner than expected. It has always been an efficient race team, and it has been addressing shortcomings ahead of this season anyway – like pitstops, which it accepts it did a poor job of relative to other teams in adjusting to 18-inch wheels last year.
“We’ve had many seasons fighting for fourths and thirds in the championships and podiums,” says McCullough. “And the difference now is the actual pace of the car is closer to the cars in front, even though positionally we’ve fought in similar places before.
“When the car’s not competitive you end up searching for performance more during a weekend and nearly cause yourself more problems.
“I think if you have a more competitive car and you arrive understanding the track, the tyres, the car, then it’s actually a more straightforward weekend. You’re not messing around with the car too much.
“Doing the job in some ways is easier. Obviously, the pressure is always higher, but ultimately in the midfield, from a strategic side of things, the last few years it’s been just as hard in its own way – you just don’t get the reward.”
That’s no longer the case, as the obvious joy of three successive podiums has shown.
Not that Aston Martin chairman Lawrence Stroll is fully satisfied. This project has not had so much time and money poured into it just to fill out the podium while some other big teams underdeliver.
The short-term success is no guarantee of Aston Martin achieving its long-term ambitions and it cannot take this trajectory for granted. It’s a great start – a head start, even – but that is all it is. More progress is essential and it starts this season.
“Now we have to deliver,” says Alonso. “This is something that we will see very soon from Baku, Imola, Barcelona.
“I think the teams will start to bring upgrades to the car and we need to be also a top team in that regard.
“On-track but also off-track we need to learn many things throughout this season to be a contender in ’24, hopefully.”