The AlphaTauri AT04 Daniel Ricciardo will make his Formula 1 comeback in is owned by Red Bull, contains Red Bull parts and has the same Honda power unit in the back of it as the all-conquering RB19.
So why is it propping up the constructors’ championship while the Red Bull has won every race so far in 2023?
To understand the disparity, it’s necessary to start with what AlphaTauri is and isn’t allowed to take from Red Bull, how much it actually does receive, and the extent of the differences between the two cars.
A team is permitted to take what are called transferrable components from a rival team, as well as being allowed to take open-source components. The latter category are parts whose design and intellectual property are available to all teams and therefore can be provided by a rival on that basis, but the transferrable components category covers the majority of mechanical components on an F1 car.
This includes the gearbox, hydraulics and rear suspension (except for the aero shrouds), all of which AlphaTauri takes from Red Bull. However, it’s important to note that these are 2022-specification parts as it does not have the same deal as Haas does with Ferrari that gives access to latest-specification components.
AlphaTauri therefore must design its own listed team components. These are defined as “components whose design, manufacture and intellectual property is owned and/or controlled by a single competitor or its agents on an exclusive basis”. It would be illegal to take these from Red Bull.
There are only seven listed team components, but given one of them is aerodynamic components (unless otherwise specified) that’s a very significant chunk of the parts that define performance. The others are the survival cell/primary roll structure, front impact structure, plank assembly, wheeldrum/drum deflector, and fuel bladder.
Since what’s referred to as ‘synergy’ was adopted in 2019, whereby the amount of parts taken from Red Bull has increased, there has been a push to more closely ally the two teams. However, this objective is now being pursued more aggressively as part of the shift of more of the team to the UK given its recent struggles.
“We share some parts already,” says AlphaTauri head of trackside engineering Jonathan Eddolls. “It’s fair to say that there’s more that we can share and that’s going to be a direction we take going forwards.
“Obviously, you can’t change some of the parts overnight because there’s budget-cap implications and obviously if we’ve designed our car around some of our own parts, then the Red Bull ones you can’t just bolt them straight on.
“So there’s a strategy in place with a view to increase the synergies and I think that’s something Peter [Bayer, new CEO] is heading up and fully supporting.”
AlphaTauri has generally been selective in what it takes from Red Bull. For example, in 2021 it could have taken Red Bull’s more elaborate rear suspension without spending the tokens that were introduced to govern the carryover cars, but opted not to. That proved a wise decision given AlphaTauri had a strong campaign in 2021.
There are two reasons why the team has shied away from taking the maximum from Red Bull. That’s because the team has always worked on its own aerodynamic concept rather than following what Red Bull does. While it shares the same Bedford windtunnel, aerodynamic data of any sort cannot be exchanged, so it must design its own aerodynamic concept.
That’s why it has never been close to being a Red Bull clone – or at least not since customer cars were banned in 2010.
Generally, it has ploughed its own furrow in this regard. While Haas, which is the logical comparison point, has followed the Ferrari aero concept because it shares so many components under the skin, AlphaTauri generally has gone its own way and is not so wedded to the architecture of its partner team even though there have been similarities on occasion.
That worked well under the old regulations, but the shift to the new ground effect regulations at the start of last year has exposed weaknesses. AlphaTauri is hardly the only team to struggle, but it remains one of F1’s smaller outfits so it’s no surprise it has had trouble.
Its particular weakness, late-entry instability in slower corners that transitions into understeer mid-corner, appears to be a consequence of the difficulties of hanging onto downforce at higher rear ride heights. This is an area where Red Bull has excelled but many others, AlphaTauri included, have struggled.
“It’s harder to find that [compromise] in the low speed because the ground effect cars, the closer they get to the ground [the more downforce] so it’s easier to find in the high speed,” said Eddolls in Austria.
“But you’ve got a trade-off between where the aerodynamics are best and how to set the car up around that. So if you’ve got a very peaky aero map, you could run the car very, very stiff, and try to just keep the ride heights in that window. But then when you’ve got a car that’s very, very stiff and you go to a bumpy track, you lose. So it’s trying to find the compromise between the aero map and the ride and where you want to target the performance.”
Achieving the right compromise in terms of mechanical ride is therefore key to AlphaTauri and one that’s preventing it making the most of the potential ground effect downforce across the full range of corner speeds. This is an ongoing battle, once that the recent major upgrade package at Silverstone was targeted at improving but that remains a problem.
This is an area where the synergy with Red Bull could pay dividends. If AlphaTauri were to take the full Red Bull suspension package front and rear, as well as the gearbox, that would give it the same platform control potential as the RB19. Harness that to a similar aero concept and it could have a very effective car.
There are downsides to taking parts insofar as it’s less efficient under the cost cap regulations given the notional costs attached to it. That means you have to count a higher total towards your cost cap spending for taking a customer gearbox than if you produced one yourself. But for a team in AlphaTauri’s position, maximising the potential under the cost cap is not the current problem – it needs performance to hold its own in F1’s midfield.
So the current AlphaTauri may share much with Red Bull, but it’s far from being the same car – or even a similar one. And for all the rhetoric about it being a sister team these days, it’s still the poor relation. From that perspective, it’s no surprise that it lacks the pace of the Red Bull RB19.
That could change with increased pooling of parts and resources where the regulations allow next year. However, it could also create the conditions for some objections from rivals given a second team owned by the same entity, based largely at the same base, might rub some rivals up the wrong way.
After all, while Haas has a base at Ferrari and utilises Ferrari parts, facilities and even personnel, it’s at least an independent entity that pays big money for its technical partnership. AlphaTauri, under whatever future name it adopts, could therefore create another flashpoint in the arguments about team alliances that have flared up regularly over the past decade if it pushes to the maximum of what the regulations permit in terms of co-operation.