Can Alpine turn its 2021 F1 season around?

marcin budkowski executive dir 1
marcin budkowski executive dir 1

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Any realistic hopes of battling with McLaren and Ferrari for third or fourth have long gone, however, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri remain within reach, so there’s still much to play for if the Enstone team can regularly start both its cars in the top 10 and start piling up the points.

Fernando Alonso’s recent feisty performances have indicated that he’s now up to speed after his two-year break from F1. As we’ve seen with several drivers this year, it’s not easy to go into a new team, never mind after a spell away in other categories.

PLUS: Why the F1 title-winning Alonso is back, both on and off-track

In contrast, his team-mate Esteban Ocon has lost his way in recent weeks, having failed to score a point in the last four races, and the team has to help him to get back on track.

“It’s clearly disappointing in terms of start of the season,” Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski tells Autosport.

“We found that there’s some decent pace in this car where we manage to deliver, and we’ve seen in qualifying in Portugal and Spain, courtesy of Esteban. So there’s decent pace in the car in qualifying, for sure.

“In the races it’s been mixed. Sometimes we missed some race pace. Fernando was complaining that we were really unlucky in general, and when something happened it really never benefited us. And there’s a bit of that.

“So he’s said he going do a little visit to one of his local places where he’s got a little little routine to kind of provoke luck ahead of Silverstone. So we’ll see if that works. If it works for Silverstone then I’ll send him there between every race!”

Marcin Budkowski, Executive Director, Alpine F1

Marcin Budkowski, Executive Director, Alpine F1

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Alonso’s charge to sixth in the mini-sprint after the late Baku restart was spectacular, and over the last three races he’s finished eighth, ninth and 10th, despite not starting from optimum grid positions.

The back-to-back weekends in Austria helped him to continue his learning process as he was able to dig deep into understanding the A521.

“I think Fernando is managing to extract the maximum of this car,” says Budkowski. “He’s worked on the set-up of the car, second week in a row obviously does help.

“Working with his engineers also in terms of of set-up, and he’s progressed in the last few races, and everything around him is taking shape as well. So it’s good to see. He certainly was happy with the car throughout the weekend.”

Budkowski believes that the pieces are falling into place.

“You need the right set-up that you build up through the weekend with your engineers and weekend preparation, you need to build up the confidence and then you need to be able to deliver 100% of it in qualifying in a very short, tense session with traffic and everything else.

“And I think for a driver like Fernando, even with all his experience, being out of it for two years, that build up to qualifying, that management of traffic, tyre temperature and all the things you have to look at, it takes a bit of time. But he’s on it, and it’s good to watch, actually.”

Nothing has been more frustrating for driver and team recently than Alonso’s aborted lap in Q2 at the Austrian GP, when the Spaniard was inadvertently blocked by Sebastian Vettel just as a top six starting position was in his sights.

The tenacity that former world champion showed on race day as he fought his way up from 14th to 10th, giving George Russell a lesson or two along the way, indicated that he’s now pretty much at one with the car.

That 10th place wasn’t much, and while it would arguably have meant a lot more to Russell and his Williams team, it was welcomed by Alpine after such a frustrating Saturday.

“It was a hard fought point,” Budkowski admits. “But to be honest starting 14th and 17th, there’s not much more we could get out of the race. Actually it was a pretty decent result, given the starting positions.

“Frustrating because Fernando’s pace in the race was quite strong, actually, I think he got the sixth or seventh quickest race lap. So the car and the driver, we could have got more out of this combination. But our weekend was really conditioned by qualifying.”

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Did Alonso really have the speed to start in the top six?

“We think so. It’s difficult to say whether he would have found the same time that the others found in Q3, but he was P3 in Q1 with one run. I think his lap that he was on, obviously didn’t finish because of the Vettel incident, our estimates would have put him third or fourth in that session.

“I don’t think we would have been third or fourth on the grid, but we think a third row would have been realistic, for sure.”

Alonso’s Austrian point was some recompense for Ocon’s nightmare weekend, which went from bad to worse. From 17th on the grid for the second weekend running the Frenchman needed a strong race and a boost for his confidence.

Instead, he was out on the first lap after contact left him with broken suspension.

“I mean, it was tough to take this weekend for Esteban,” says Budkowski. “Because he put a lot of work in with his engineers between the Austrian races to try to understand the issues and extract more from the car. Qualifying was tough.

“The race, let’s face it, there’s not much he could have hoped, so he attacked at the start, and actually through no fault of his own he got completely sandwiched and it broke his suspension. So it’s the end to pretty painful weekend.

“But to be honest, there’s no point just cruising around for the whole race, when you start 17th with a quicker car, you got to take risks to try to get a few positions.”

Budkowski concedes that the Austrian double-header was clearly difficult for Ocon, the previous race in Paul Ricard was not as bad as some might suggest.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“I wouldn’t mix in France, where he finished 11th on the grid just missing Q3, with a car that effectively was worth a ninth or 10th position on pure pace, with a 17th position in Austria. They’re completely distinct things.

“So I think it’s fair to say he struggled in the two Austrian races to just extract the pace out of the car.”

The team remains mystified as to why that happened.

“No, we don’t have clear, clear answers. We don’t see anything in the data. I think, as usual it’s a combination of driver confidence, set-up and car performance in general. And it all needs to come together.”

After the Austrian race, Ocon said that he hoped his car would be stripped and parts replaced as part of the search for his troubles. The team confirmed on Tuesday that it has indeed changed Ocon’s chassis in an effort to remove any doubts.

Judging Ocon’s rehabilitation will be made more more complex at Silverstone by the new sprint format. Instead of having three practice sessions in which to find his feet it will be FP1 on Friday and then straight into qualifying in the afternoon.

Like everyone else, Alpine has much to learn about how a sprint weekend unfolds, and choice of tyre for the Saturday event is one variable that could involved a roll of the dice.

“If the tyres allow us not to manage too much in that short sprint, it’s gonna be interesting,” says Budkowski. “Equally tyre degradation and tyre management do create some some action on the track as well.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“I think there’s a good chance everybody will have the same tyre for that sprint. But again, different cars wear the tyres a bit differently, if it’s marginal, some people can chance it. Most of the time, it will be a simple, obvious choice on a circuit where it’s actually marginal to get a tyre to last. Equally it’s not a bad thing to say, just go for it on a short stint.”

“But just remember that the faster tyres are usually the ones that degrade quicker. So they’re not necessarily quicker over over a stint, and while you can make positions at the start, maybe you can lose them later. So it’s not an obvious one.”

Alpine is turning off the development tap for the 2021 car, although the need to rework its rear wings to meet the stricter FIA deflection tests has been a distraction from the plan to focus on next year.

Sometimes you can find performance by learning more about what you have rather than by adding new parts every weekend, and that’s where the focus is now.

“I think there’s a bit of that,” Budkowski concedes. “And I think this is what we have, pretty much.

“We’re still bringing some minor things, mostly around weight saving, to compensate for the rear wing stiffening, which cost us a bit of weight to the rear of the car. But apart from that, this is pretty much what we were going to race for the rest of the year.”

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