The Alfa Romeo C39 had the slowest qualifying average of all the 2020 Formula 1 cars, marginally behind Haas and Williams in the ‘Class C’ part of the grid.
That’s a slightly misleading statistic because its race pace was more often than not the best of that group, albeit never a threat to the back of the midfield.
“The qualifying pace was a shocker in the early races” :: Jan Monchaux
This and an excellent reliability record meant it took eight points from five ninth- and 10th-place finishes between Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, putting it eighth in the constructors’ championship.
Alfa’s technical director Jan Monchaux puts forward the fact that the team still isn’t fully on top of fully understanding the tyres as a reason for the mismatch between qualifying and race (it qualified at the head of the group at only five of the 17 events but raced to the head of it on 11 occasions).
“We seem to be more fragile in terms of car performance with low temperatures,” he says, “when we struggle more than usual to display a competitive pace.
“We were not expecting after the winter test to be able to compete for the top of the midfield but the qualifying pace was a shocker in the early races, even more since our race pace was much better.
“It has been difficult, with no time to breathe from one event to the next, to get our head around the reason why we could not show the same relative performance in qualifying than in the race.
“It took us some time to understand which part was coming from the power unit quali mode and which part was down to the proper set-up giving the driver the confidence he needs but also getting the tyres to work for a single timed lap.
“In Barcelona [round 5] we ended up having our mini breakthrough and could align our quali performance with the race performance better.
“There was no magic since the car in Barcelona was the same as per Silverstone.
“We aligned the stars by slightly modifying our set-up and our tyre preparation. It was not a lot, some of these things had been tested previously but in isolation and only by doing them together could we make the step we were looking for.”
Why was the Alfa outqualified so many times by a Williams? Probably because the Williams had George Russell behind the wheel
That all stands up to an extent. But even if we ignore the events before the ‘mini-breakthrough’ of Spain, Alfa still headed its ‘class’ in qualifying only four times but ‘won’ it on race day nine times. So there remained some sort artificial ceiling in qualifying.
Also, we got a few chances to see that although the tyre performance might be ‘fragile’ in low temperatures, it was an observation that was much truer of qualifying than race day.
Indeed, in the cool conditions of Portimao, the Alfa’s early-lap pace on the soft tyres was spectacular – allowing Raikkonen to climb from 16th to sixth in the space of a few corners.
It was generally better on the tyres over the season than the Williams or Haas on race days, suggesting that its aero profile was nicely consistent.
Race pace in this era of F1 is very often defined by the pace at which the tyre can be kept beneath the overheating threshold. Of this year’s races probably only Mugello, the Nurburgring, Portimao and Istanbul were not like that. The remaining 13 were tyre deg-style races of some variation.
In the tyre deg races the car decides what its race pace is, as monitored by the engineers on the pitwall looking at the tyre temperatures. It’s invariably at a pace 2s or more off what it would be if the tyres allowed the driver to push.
There are a few drivers who can conjure some sort of miracle blend between pace and tyre life – Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez the obvious ones – but generally, the pace set by the tyres in tyre deg races is far, far from what the car is capable.
Therefore pretty much any competent F1 driver could lap it at the pace the tyre is imposing. The difference between the ace and the merely good driver shows up much more readily in qualifying.
Why was the Alfa outqualified so many times by a Williams which in the round looks to be a slower car? Probably because the Williams had George Russell behind the wheel.
Raikkonen in his last two seasons with Ferrari was definitely not as quick as Sebastian Vettel and there’s no reason to suppose he’s become quicker since. Giovinazzi’s pace is very similar to Raikkonen’s (the difference was 0.046s this year).
What happened the last time the Alfa/Sauber had a genuinely super-quick driver in it?
It was 2018 when a rookie Charles Leclerc, after a slow start, began taking Sauber into the ‘best of the rest’ set of teams behind the big three.
A couple of times in the second half of that year Leclerc did in fact emerge as ‘victorious’ in that group and was trading punches with Renault and McLaren. That impetus was lost in 2019 as the Swiss team’s recovery stalled.
Admittedly, while Leclerc (who immediately proved quicker at Ferrari relative to Vettel than Raikkonen had been) was a revelation in 2018, he wouldn’t have made a difference the year prior – as Sauber had dropped to a solid last in the qualifying averages at a whopping 3.4s off the pace.
Most of that drop was surely about the team not getting as much from the new wide car regulations as its rivals, a deficit that Monchaux still feels has not been fully recovered.
But that significant driver difference would have made a much heavier impact on the last two seasons. If we place Leclerc in the 2019 Alfa, it wouldn’t be so far off with trading blows with Renault and McLaren again.
In large part because of the substantial power loss of the Ferrari power unit to the latest set of technical directives, this year’s car is less competitive than last year’s (10th fastest at 2.3s off Mercedes as opposed to 1.65s off and seventh fastest last year) but those vital driver tenths would have made a big difference in the ‘Class C’ fight.
The evidence suggests that Alfa could have dominated that part of the grid in both qualifying and races.
This is the third part of our team-by-team 2020 season review. You can read the second part, chronicling the campaign of Haas and its VF-20, here.