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Beyond Alonso’s fire – Was Alpine’s test as bad as it seemed?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

Fernando Alonso’s fiery stoppage on the final morning of Barcelona’s pre-season test brought Alpine’s low-key week to a premature yet dramatic end.

Eighth of the 10 teams in laptime and in mileage, thanks to the damage inflicted by the problem that brought the A522 to a smoking halt, represent underwhelming statistics for Alpine.

But even by testing standards, the team believes that the numbers don’t tell the full story.

For starters, not using the drag reduction system and committing to a higher-than-normal fuel load have masked Alpine’s pace and the work it has done for the new regulations.

“It absolutely could be a little bit better, being completely honest with you,” Alpine sporting director Alan Permane explained on Friday.

“We have been hampered quite significantly by not being able to run DRS for a couple of reasons. Nothing major, nothing serious. Nothing we won’t have fixed for Bahrain. And honestly, we probably could have run it yesterday and today, but we chose not to, we know what the difference is by running it.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Test One Day 2 Barcelona, Spain

“But that does hamper things, it’s not only just that fixed lap time you lose each lap. It also affects things like tyre warm-up, and there’s a little bit of a snowball effect because of that.

“We’re running quite a high fuel load for us in testing as well, which we sort of picked on the first day and kind of got stuck there, really.

“And because we haven’t had the ability to use the DRS, we kind of thought ‘let’s just leave it there and just plod round’.

“I think those two things combined have really made us not look so good.”

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Test One Day 3 Barcelona, Spain

There are a few things to get into here. The Friday failure is the quickest to tick off – the car going up in smoke prompted assumptions it was an engine failure.

Permane describes the problem as a “silly” issue – “a split pipe” within the hydraulics, “which has caused a huge amount of damage, but it’s an easily fixable problem”.

Until that point, Alpine had a really solid test in terms of mileage. It felt just short of an optimistic target on day one, but still racked up more than 600 kilometres. Day two was hampered slightly by an engine sensor issue and a broken floor bracket. Otherwise, the A522 – and its brand new engine – has run “really, really well”.

The DRS issue was more problematic. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that Alonso and Esteban Ocon had been very slow through the speed traps throughout the test, invariably at the bottom (with the exception of sessions where other cars completely little more than installation laps).

Alpine has not fully explained why it chose not to use the DRS. Permane just says “it is related to top speed, it’s a load thing” and that left the team not “comfortable” using it.

“And it’s not that we can’t do it, or we’re scared or we’re worried about anything, or we think something’s going to break, we’re just being cautious,” he insists.

Alpine’s choice was to play it safe and make sure it can be used in Bahrain, and that decision was informed by the lack of performance running it intended to do in Spain anyway.

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“We knew on the first morning we wouldn’t be able to use it,” Permane says.

“And then we thought, well, we’re going get on top of it and be able to use it. And we thought, there’s so much to do.”

This obviously contributed to the underwhelming lap times because “it’s over seven tenths a lap for us around here”. Alpine also has no knowledge of how the use of DRS impacts the porpoising issue that caught several teams out at Barcelona.

However, there is still a lot that the team has been able to learn about its car.

“We don’t know if it gets worse with the DRS open or better with the DRS open,” says Permane.

“So that side of things has hindered us and we’ve played with dropping the car really low so it’s touching and seeing if that makes it better, lifting it up higher.

“Rather than trying to eliminate it we’re just trying to understand it a little bit. It’s certainly there but I don’t think it’s a primary performance differentiator.”

On the subject of performance, though, is it possible to get a read on Alpine after this test?

It’s had a stressful winter and the car was only finished on Tuesday before the test so it could be shook down. That it went on to complete such a high day one tally suggests no serious corners were cut to get it ready in time.

But while several teams were clearly moving into more performance work as the test progressed, and the likes of McLaren and Ferrari looked impressive, Alpine never made the same impact.

Internally, there is cautious optimism. Set-up changes Thursday to Friday seemed to make the car a lot better, with the rear much calmer. Alonso was said to be “super happy” with the car prior to the problem on the final morning.

And across various elements like tyre compounds, engine modes, fuel loads and the DRS, Alpine reckons there is a big leap to make – which is why its reality isn’t as bleak as the final timing sheets suggest.

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“I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses,” says Permane. “I’m not saying we’re going to go out and beat Mercedes and Red Bull.

“But I think we are in a reasonable or in a decent position, honestly.

“The lap Fernando did this morning, although it was only one lap, if you look at the same time he did it, it’s very comparable to what Max Verstappen did, albeit Verstappen’s using DRS.

“So if you overlay the GPS, which we can do with the systems we have from the FIA, the traces are almost identical apart from the straights where we lose a huge amount of time.

“I don’t want to sit here and say everything’s fine, and we’re completely chilled. Of course, we’re concerned.

“But in no way are we going to be at the bottom of the timesheets, that’s for sure.”

Of course, nobody would expect a works team to be anywhere near that. But after years of stagnation and a 2021 season in which Alpine finished fifth but definitely didn’t have the fifth-fastest car, this is a team that needs to progress towards the front rather than be quickest.

Permane’s initial verdict is that the A522 looks like it might achieve that.

Feb 25 : Every team's Barcelona F1 test rated

“My gut feel is that we are probably a little bit closer to the front than we were at the end of last year,” he says.

“I know what fuel we’re running, of course I don’t know what fuel other people are running. And if other people are running the same, maybe we’re not as good.

“I wouldn’t have thought so. I doubt some of the quick times by some of the midfield teams are done on anywhere near the same amount of fuel that we’re running.

“So that gives me a warm feeling.”

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