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Formula 1

‘The beauty of crisis’ behind Alfa’s sudden Aston Martin chase

by Glenn Freeman
5 min read

Alfa Romeo’s 2021 Formula 1 season so far looks similar to the last one, with consistent finishes outside the top 10 and zero points after four races. But its performance has improved, even if that hasn’t been rewarded with results.

In terms of single-lap performance, Alfa Romeo has climbed from 2.732% off the pace last year to 1.932% this year, albeit slipping from eighth to ninth in the average ranking after being jumped by Williams. But the pace improvement is reflected in escaping Q1 five times in eight attempts this year, compared to just eight times out of 34 last season.

That would have been backed up by points had Kimi Raikkonen’s ninth place on-the-road at Imola stood. Instead, he was relegated to 13th by a time penalty for failure to follow the correct – if conflicting – procedures after spinning into the gravel and losing two places after being released from the pits under the safety car prior to the restart. Team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi would likely also have scored in that race but for visor tear-off getting caught in a rear brake and forcing a pitstop to remove it.

May 09 : Spanish Grand Prix review

All of this adds up to Alfa Romeo’s usual habitat being the periphery of the points in races. The Spanish Grand Prix was a good example, for while Giovinazzi’s race was compromised by the pitstop problem under the safety car that cost him a set of mediums and also led to him taking the restart just over 12 seconds off the back of the pack, Raikkonen finished 12th and within seven seconds of the top 10.

Although the Sauber-run team is again in a battle for eighth in the constructors’ championship, in some ways Aston Martin has been its most consistent rival. The lead Alfa has always been classified just behind or just ahead of an Aston Martin in all four races this year.

“We will try to beat them, they are at that rank at the moment that we can fight with them,” said head of trackside engineering Xevi Pujolar

“We were able to fight, we still need a bit more pace to get into the top 10 but I think it is possible. [In Spain] even the Williams was a decent pace, so we need to be careful as well because everyone is there.”

It’s certainly a congested part of the field, but the Alfa Romeo is one of the most consistent cars in the field. In mathematical terms, its standard deviation shows it’s the most consistent of the midfield group in performance.

That also reflects car characteristics that appear relatively driver-friendly, as well as effective across a wide range of circuits and weather conditions. With further updates still to come for the car, which features a revised nose compared to last season as that’s where the team chose to spend its upgrade tokens, a small gain could make it a more dependable points threat.

It has continued to improve the car with aerodynamic upgrades, most recently experimenting with a new front wing during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend.

“At the moment we are quite level on qualifying and race pace, and also in different track layouts and different conditions, we are able to be always pretty much there,“ said Pujolar.

Raikkonen Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo F1 2021

“We just need one step more of performance overall to be fighting with a middle group that is the one that has the potential to get into the points if you don’t have any action or any reliability problems ahead.”

While the progress is not spectacular, Alfa Romeo appears to be the best-equipped of the group at the back to score. Yes, Williams has been able to outperform it in qualifying, but its erratic and wind-sensitive car has often struggled in races.

And while eighth in the championship would be nothing to write home about for a third successive season and suggests stagnation, especially given it scored 57 points in 2019 with the same driver line-up, technical director Jan Monchaux believes the team has made tangible progress. He puts this down to the shock at its early-season struggles last year, which were not only down to the shortcomings of the Ferrari power unit.

“We are probably better to some extent everywhere,” said Monchaux of the step from last year to this.

“We haven’t fully recovered since last year due to the new regs, there’s no secret about that. We’ve nonetheless been working very hard during the winter on improving some characteristics the car had, which probably were not ideal for both our drivers to just give them more confidence, have a car they can attack better the corner.

“In the end, everything is in the corner entry, if the drivers have faith in the car and have stability then they will be able to get a couple of km/h quicker in, to brake later. If you don’t have [that faith] it’s usually quite complicated, so we’ve been working quite a lot on those things, which is not something that you can fix from one race to the other.

“All these things were worked very hard and triggered by the very poor start we had last season when we were taken a bit aback and shocked. It didn’t take long to understand that we had a problem it the power unit, like all the three teams with the same power unit, but nonetheless there were some things on our car that could have been better.

“The beauty of the crisis we have been in is that it forces us to really question a lot of things internally, because we have always been very reluctant to push the blame on our [engine] partner, that would have been too easy.

“We’ve been going through a very hard, challenging exercise where we challenge everything. We are now in the fight in the midfield as a result of the work undertaken.”

Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo F1 2021

Given the car is both more competitive and easier to drive, this suggests Alfa Romeo has been successful on this path, even it is hard to see it returning to the level of points it scored in 2019.

The trend is encouraging, although what the ultimate potential of the team, particularly for next year’s major rules overhaul, is uncertain, given it is still budget-limited. Its Alfa Romeo deal that expires at the end of the year with sources indicating that is very unlikely to continue – although team principal Frederic Vasseur recently suggested that talks remained open.

But what is happening on the track at least proves the Sauber team is making progress, even if it is frustratingly short of the level required to be a consistent points-scorer.

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