Despite Alpine getting its best result of the year with Fernando Alonso’s sixth place in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix – a result of Alonso gaining four places in the two-lap sprint to the chequered flag after the race was stopped – Formula 1’s pair of street circuit races have not played to the strengths of the A521.
F1 returns to more conventional circuits with a triple-header at Paul Ricard and the Red Bull Ring, but there are still big question marks over Alpine’s race pace. While it has always had at least one car in Q3 this season, so far Saturdays have been its stronger suit, which is reflected in its haul of just 25 points over the first six races.
In Azerbaijan, Alonso ran seventh early on but was only 10th when the race was red-flagged having struggled for pace once he had switched to the hard tyre. During that phase of the race, the pace of the Alpine was similar, if not a little worse, than that of Alfa Romeo.
It had been hoped that Baku represented a return to form, with Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski suggesting that the previous race in Monaco, where Esteban Ocon was the team’s spearhead with 11th in qualifying then ninth in the race, was just a blip because of the struggles getting the front tyres up to temperature.
“It’s in line with what we showed in Portugal and Spain,” said Budkowski after Friday practice in Azerbaijan.
“Monaco was a bit of a glitch in our progression, a really poor weekend, a poor showing for us and we got pretty lost. So I don’t think it was reflective of the competitiveness of the car or the team.”
What happened over the next two days would have come as a disappointment despite Alonso’s late heroics. The tyres again appeared to be a problem in the race based on Alonso’s struggles as he came under pressure from Alfa Romeo driver Raikkonen before the red flag.
“Overall, it was an encouraging weekend up until Sunday,” said Budkowski. “Our pace was relatively competitive on Friday up until Saturday and we reached Q3 with one car after a tricky session with many yellow and red flags.
“It was disappointing for Esteban to retire early on with a reliability issue, and unfortunately our race pace wasn’t strong enough to allow Fernando to fight for good positions in the race. It took a fantastic effort from him to secure sixth position in the last two laps.”
But this trend was also evident in Spain, where Ocon qualified a superb fifth but, after slipping to seventh at the start was losing time to midfield leader Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari at just over a second per lap. He eventually finished ninth having gambled on a one-stop strategy, with Alonso’s attempt to do the same failing after he was shuffled out of the points and made a second stop.
It was a similar story in the preceding race in Portugal, where Ocon qualified sixth and finished fifth. There, he had the pace in qualifying to challenge Ferrari and McLaren but was a step behind on race pace come Sunday.
“We have work to do to understand our race pace deficit and it’s something we’re actively investigating,” said Budkowski.
“It’s clear the car is capable of good performances in qualifying, but on some circuits, we can’t seem to replicate that good pace in race conditions, and that’s something we need to get on top of to score bigger points.
“We hope that our findings so far will help us achieving a good result in France, on a full-time circuit more typical of what we normally see in Formula 1.”
Alpine has what Budkowski called some “minor improvements” to the car for the French Grand Prix. This includes a modified rear wing to meet the demands of the recent technical directives, which could disadvantage Alpine given it’s understood to be among the teams that had an effective flex-wing.
Whether Alpine can balance up its qualifying and race pace remains to be seen. While there is potential for balancing its set-up tradeoff more in favour on Sunday, it could simply be that the fresh-tyre grip shrouds some of the weaknesses of the car, meaning that sustaining its relative pace from qualifying is not possible.
But having lost sixth place in the constructors’ championship to AlphaTauri, and with its 2020 rivals Ferrari and McLaren having an increasingly distant fight for third, Alpine desperately needs to improve its race pace.