It is hard to imagine a Formula 1 team having a worse weekend than Alpine suffered at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which “snowballed out of control” from a disastrous start.
The Renault works team’s wasteful season continued in Baku where neither car finished in the points at the end of a calamitous three days.
It had all started so encouragingly. Alpine worked hard to bring a major floor update for both cars and was bullish that it would be a good performance step that helped it kick on in its bid to fight the four leading teams.
But that upgrade was reduced to a minor footnote almost instantly as both cars hit trouble in the only Friday practice session and sent the team into the rest of the sprint weekend on the back foot.
Alpine sporting director Alan Permane admitted that with such a pressured format, which locks teams into parc ferme condition after that sole practice session, “you need to start off well-prepared and have a smooth weekend”.
“We have that with neither car in FP1,” he said. “And it snowballed out of control from there.”
A hose failure on Pierre Gasly’s car caused a fire that forced him to stop on track while Esteban Ocon’s mileage was limited by a problem with the build of the gearbox.
“You make your own luck with things like that,” said Permane. “We didn’t do a good enough job.”
That meant Alpine went into Friday qualifying extremely compromised on set-up knowledge, and though Ocon did a “really incredible” job in the circumstances to qualify 12th, Gasly crashed his hastily-rebuilt car at the start of Q1.
It would get worse on Saturday. Alpine discovered a lot of wear on Ocon’s plank after qualifying and realised it was at serious risk of being illegal by the end of a full grand prix distance. It took the painful decision to change the car’s set-up in parc ferme – which meant starting from the pitlane in both the sprint and the main race.
This was a “direct consequence of what happened in FP1”, Permane said. Had the team had the running it should have got, it would have been noticed sooner.
The only hope of salvaging the weekend was for some classic Baku chaos to strike, but instead both the sprint race and grand prix were straightforward. With the team’s set-up direction compromised, its cars simply lacked the pace to make much progress.
“Here we are nowhere,” said Permane. “And that is a function of our Friday here. It really shows you have to be on your game, we cannot allow ourselves to have a Friday like we had.
“We must ensure that we never have a Friday like that again.”
Come the race both Gasly and Ocon were far less competitive than they had been in previous races – especially the last one in Australia. Gasly finished 14th and Ocon 15th after running until the last lap on a single set of hard tyres in the hope of a late safety car or red flag.
It was an unrewarding end to a weekend Gasly said “nobody enjoyed” and Permane called was unlike any other he had experienced.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong for us,” said Gasly. “We clearly underperformed, we’ve got to look at it objectively and honestly.
“We’ve showed much better performance in Melbourne and in the first two weekends and this weekend we were nowhere near that.
“So we’ll have to analyse and especially make this never happens again this season because we can’t afford this for the championship.”
One silver lining from Baku, perhaps the only one, is that the data suggests the floor update that meant it started the weekend so optimistic was a success. It was just invisible as that performance couldn’t be tapped into with the wrong set-up direction Alpine’s Friday led it in.
“It worked, in fact it overperformed a little bit,” said Permane. “So that’s a positive to take away.
“It looks very much like we’re going to continue that trend of just being able to put things on the car without really having to test them too much, which is such a huge benefit, and something that we grew in confidence with last year.”
Permane said he was glad to escape the sprint format and get back to a normal weekend immediately in Miami, where Alpine will have another, smaller upgrade.
It will also hope to finally end its stuttering start to the season. Given Ocon’s penalty-filled opener in Bahrain, the devastating double-DNF with both cars crashing into each other at the end of the race in Australia, and now this Baku nightmare, Alpine’s tally of dropped points is already significant.
Alpine is only sixth in the championship, behind even McLaren, with eight points from four races. Its target of fourth is 54 points up the road and former midfield rival Aston Martin is rubbing salt in the wound, sitting second in the championships with 10 times as many points as Alpine.
But Alpine had started last year slowly too, then developed well. And the double-points finish in Saudi Arabia and the hugely encouraging speed in Melbourne, where Gasly was in the mix with Ferraris and Aston Martins, gives Alpine hope it can spark its season into life in a similar manner.
“If we say Saudi was a clean one, and we say our objective was to close the gap on Mercedes and Ferrari over the winter, we can say we did that,” said Permane.
“I don’t think anyone expected Aston Martin to take the jump they’ve taken, so they jumped both of those teams, by the look of it.
“That [Saudi Arabia] felt like a normal weekend and like where the car is, and if you look at Melbourne performance it was in line with our expectations
“I don’t think there’s anything sinister going on. I really don’t. Hopefully, we’ve got all the gremlins out of the way and we just do the straightforward weekend.
“There isn’t an underlying problem or anything like that, that’s for sure.”