INSIGHT: Why Alpine is (mostly) better than it looks

INSIGHT: Why Alpine is (mostly) better than it looks

Alpine’s near-farcical pursuit of drivers for 2023, losing first choice Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and second choice Oscar Piastri to McLaren, reflects badly. It’s done little to suggest that a works organization that has yet to get close to fulfilling its potential in Formula 1 since the Renault Group reacquired the Enstone-based team ahead of 2016. But that’s not necessarily a fair impression.

When Renault took over the team ahead of 2016, it set a five-year timescale for emerging as a title-challenging force. Clearly, it missed that timetable given it’s now in the seventh season of that countdown and has done nothing more than bounce around in F1’s midfield. While that’s a failure of sorts, it’s important to note that the team itself ultimately conceded it underestimated the timescale required. 

As then-chief technical officer Bob Bell admitted in 2018, the scale of the complexities of modern F1 meant that turning a team that had suffered from under-investment in the later days of Genii Capital ownership into a frontrunner was always likely to take longer.

“My quotation of five years was based on historic evidence with what happened when Red Bull took over Jaguar, Mercedes took over Brawn, when Renault came in after taking over Benetton and of course those were in different eras,” said Bell. “Formula 1 is significantly more complex, the teams involved are significantly bigger now than back then, so I would say now that five years is a minimum.”

The point about the increased complexity of F1 was a fair one. Investment skyrocketed with first Red Bull then Mercedes pushing back the boundaries. Combined with commercial agreements that shoveled disproportionate funds to the biggest teams (something Renault did negotiate a deal to gain from), the investment level and growth rates meant that F1’s big three broke away from the rest.

But today, Alpine is now in the early stages of another four-to-five-year plan. Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi, laid this out last year as a “100-race project”, with the clock starting to tick at the beginning of this year. The objective set out was slightly muddy, but broadly speaking the aim is to be a regular frontrunner by that point – and therefore surely title threat. With 22 races on this year’s calendar and 24 on the 2023 schedule, that means that by 2026 Alpine needs to be at the sharp end.

But while its place in the midfield feels like more of the same this year, that’s not an entirely fair judgement. Currently, it holds fourth in the constructors’ championship with an advantage of 18 points over McLaren. On average, it’s nip and tuck on pace compared to McLaren but despite a difficult weekend at Monza – a track where the car was expected to be more competitive – Alpine has had the edge more often than not recently.

One clear area of improvement this year has been on the power unit side. When the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid engines were introduced in 2014, after four consecutive seasons when Renault-powered Red Bull won the title, the French manufacturer struggled. Despite occasional victories, that remained the case until a big push was made for 2022. That was thanks to a combination of changes pushed through by Rossi, who tasked the Renault Sport engine base at Viry-Chatillon to be more aggressive with its engine development, and the need to ensure a big step this year given the implementation of the engine freeze. To achieve that, Bruno Famin was brought in to head it up in his role of executive director of Alpine Racing.

That resulted in Renault adopting the split turbo concept pioneered in F1 by Mercedes in 2014 and subsequently used by Honda. This places the compressor and turbine at opposite ends of the engine, conferring packaging and temperature management benefits. While Renault still isn’t quite the market-leading engine in F1, it’s very close. And there are other advantages, with a big push made to improve the integration of chassis and engine to maximize performance.

“If you look at the car without any bodywork on, the integration is a country mile different from what we’ve done in the past,” says chief technical officer Pat Fry. “That is all part of how a works team needs to work.

“There’s always trades for what’s the best laptime. Years ago, it used to be ‘what’s the size of the airbox you make and what are the aero trades for that’. Now, it’s cooling layouts and how we’re going to optimize that and the basic layout of the car.

Alpine’s battle against McLaren for midfield supremacy will be a key element to the team’s long-term effort to become an established frontrunner. Carl Bingham/Motorsport Images

“That has been outstanding and Viry have done a good job as well. We’ve closed the gap. We’re not quite there with the others, but if you look at the sound analysis and GPS analysis, we’re getting there.”

On the chassis side, the Alpine has proved to be a more consistent performer than in previous seasons. Setting aside the surprising underperformance at Monza, it’s been a decent all-rounder that has also generally performed well on the straights. That’s allowed Alonso and Esteban Ocon to pick up consistent results – nothing better than fifth, but more frequently than the previous year. There’s been no repeat of last year’s Hungary victory, but that was a fortuitous win born of first-corner chaos and circumstances. This has been an altogether more convincing season. 

Alpine has avoided the major porpoising problems that have held others back and demonstrated a good understanding of how to extract the most from its car. Early-season inconsistency across qualifying and the race was tackled and the car became a solid all-round performer. Crucially, a steady stream of upgrades have generally worked as anticipated. Like many, Alpine started the season with an overweight car and has whittled away at that disadvantage.

The main weakness has been reliability, something that has improved as the season has progressed. Alonso claimed earlier in the season that he’d lost as many as “60-70” points to problems outside of his control, an overstatement, but not dramatically so. That’s reflected in the fact he’s scored 59 points to Ocon’s 66 despite being, overall, the stronger performer.

There have also been changes to the team culture, partly instigated by the arrival of team principal Otmar Szafnauer. While caught up in the controversy over driver deals and having to defend what appeared an indefensible position in public (and it’s worth noting that the problems with Piastri’s contract pre-dated his arrival at the team earlier this year), he has also played a key role in implementing changes.

This has been reflected in an increase in the throughput of parts and a tightening up on processes that is believed to have played a part in ensuring the development rate has been so good. This has been commented on by numerous individuals in the team, including Ocon. 

Alpine remains at a disadvantage compared to F1’s established top teams, simply because of the historic benefits of massive investment. But it’s a team that should be well-structured around the necessary size for a cost-cap limited F1 team and that is chipping away at weaknesses, for example by evaluating upgrades to its windtunnel and other key infrastructure facilities.

This means how it fares to its current nearest rival, McLaren, over the next two to three years will be key. McLaren has invested heavily in improving its facilities, with a new windtunnel currently in build, which it anticipates will bear fruit with the 2024 car. It’s also a team that, like Alpine, is at the front of the queue to join F1’s big three, making their current battle one not just for midfield supremacy, but to be next in the queue to emerge as a race-winning force.

That might seem a long way off, but Alpine is at least looking like it could be on a trajectory that will allow it to fulfill its potential. That’s what makes the disastrous handling of signing a driver to partner Ocon in 2023 and beyond potentially so costly.

While Pierre Gasly (assuming that deal is completed as appears likely) will be paraded as some kind of ‘first choice’ and a key part of a French superteam, the reality is that he will cost money to buy out of the final year of his Red Bull deal. The team would have been in far better shape with the continuity of Alonso, had it better handled the negotiations rather than treating him as a potential seat-warmer for Piastri, or making good on its investment in Piastri. And for all the talk about loyalty (which is usually only demanded in one direction by employers), the fact is that Alpine failed to put together the contract for him to sign when it should have done.

Alpine will put this driver farrago behind it soon enough, but the key hope is that the lax attitude that led to it losing Piastri and failing to lock down Alonso doesn’t reflect a broader malaise. Because based on what’s happened on track so far this year, Alpine is finally looking like a team that could actually make good on its current 100-race plan. Assuming, of course, that it can build on its recent progress and break through the ‘glass ceiling’ separating the midfield from the frontrunners.