A bonus season using a Mercedes-inspired core car concept with the added extra of ‘free’ upgraded suspension promised a lot for the start of Aston Martin’s new Formula 1 era.
Yet the off-track excitement and splendour that marked Racing Point’s transition to its new identity over the off-season was lost amid the team’s struggle for performance in the season opener.
The AMR21 was several tenths slower than its main rivals at a track where its predecessor was quick enough to contend for a podium just a few months ago. Lance Stroll did well to fashion a top-10 qualifying position but he faded as the race progressed and was even nabbed by AlphaTauri’s rookie Yuki Tsunoda for ninth on the final lap. The less said about star signing Sebastian Vettel’s debut, the better.
One point was not what people expected of Aston Martin, the team with the third-fastest car of 2020 – a car that was meant to be even more competitive this year.
The controversial RP20 had originally been conceived as a one-hit wonder then abandoned for all-new technical rules in 2021.
When F1 postponed those rules to 2022 and made the decision that teams would be barred from making wholesale changes to their 2020 designs over the winter – all in the name of saving money amid the coronavirus pandemic – Aston Martin suddenly had a ‘freebie’ in the form of an unexpected second year.
Its AMR21 would also benefit from 2020-spec Mercedes rear suspension and gearbox, which had been a significant weapon for the works team last year, because it uses year-old parts from its supplier rather than up-to-date ones. Upgrading to the 2020 version for 2021 was still permitted amid the carry-over car rules.
And yet Aston Martin has taken a step backwards. Team boss Otmar Szafnauer has made it emphatically clear that the new floor rules are to blame. He claimed in Bahrain that the low-rake cars – the Mercedes and, by extension, the Aston Martin – had lost around a second compared to their opposition.
“Compared to where we were just a few months ago here, before the regulation change, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” was Szafnauer’s resigned assessment post-race.
With the benefit of hindsight it is tempting to suggest the signs were there in pre-season testing. However, the three days spent in Bahrain in mid-March were interrupted by various reliability gremlins and Aston Martin simply did not undertake anywhere near enough performance running to get a sensible read.
It now seems the team had its suspicions about the pecking order. But Szafnauer calling qualifying a “rude awakening”, exposing the true competitive situation (at least at this one specific circuit), would indicate the impact of the 2021 rule changes – stripping away performance at the rear of the car – has played out even less favourably than anticipated.
This piece from The Race’s Mark Hughes explains the alleged impact of those changes on the Mercedes and Aston Martin cars. The curiosity now is what it means for Aston Martin and an AMR21 that Vettel said he is “not at home” with and claimed “there are a lot of things fighting me, so that I can’t really focus on driving”.
It’s not that Aston Martin has been caught by surprise. It’s interesting to reflect on the reaction to the new rules when they were confirmed, and how this team expressed quite clearly that it would have a massive performance impact and addressing that would require a major development programme.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it was pointed out last year by the low-rake runners that this would have a bigger effect than on the high-rake runners, and we were correct,” Szafnauer said in Bahrain.
“At the time the regulations were being made, this was pointed out.”That Aston Martin committed to that and still came up so short will be a concern. And it’s not one that the team can just dismiss out of hand. Partly because there is a lot to try to achieve this year in its first year with big expectations and scrutiny thanks to its new name, and there is a risk of rising internal pressure if the team underperforms, and partly because it will be important to work out exactly why the AMR21 is struggling so much.
“There’s more to come, we haven’t given up on this year,” said Szafnauer. “We have found things in the windtunnel and CFD, so we’ll start bringing them to the track pretty soon.
“It’s just a matter of clawing back the deficit that was imposed on us by the FIA through their regulation change based on safety.
“From talking to some of the other teams, they seem to have made up the entire deficit and we haven’t, and that just because of the different aero philosophy that we run. We’ll work hard to get that done in the next few races.
“Hopefully by the time we get to Portimao [round three], we’ll improve the car a little bit more, and we’ll work hard at it.
“Looking at where we were three-four months ago in Bahrain, same track, tyres a bit different, the significant difference is the regulation change. And if you remember with a couple of laps to go, Sergio [Perez] was comfortably in third until his engine let go. Now we’re fighting for 10th and 15th so significantly different.
Citing the impact of the rule changes on low-rake cars is Aston Martin’s go-to explanation for the form shown in the first race. At the moment, it’s fair to give it the benefit of the doubt. But it’s not an acceptable excuse on its own, because Mercedes is still doing a better job.
“We have to look to see what type of lap time they’re able to do,” Szafnauer admitted. “We have the same powertrain, the same gearbox, same rear suspension.
“If they’re able to do similar laptimes, we should be able to get close, so that gives us some hope. But I think a lot of the teams are a lot closer to Mercedes than they were last year, including Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.
“If you look back to see where Ferrari was three months ago and where they are now relative to Mercedes, it will give you a picture.”
That picture is that Mercedes has been reined in and the prevailing theory at the world champion team is, like at Aston Martin, that the rule changes are a key factor in that.
But blaming the changes will only achieve so much. The higher-rake cars will still have lost out to some degree, so have done well to recover as much as they have even if there was potentially some lower-hanging fruit.
Plus, the new tyres are a significant factor as well, and there are lots of elements on the AMR21 designed to tackle the floor changes. It would be risky for Aston Martin to overlook other elements that could be limiting performance simply because the impact of the aero rules is the easy answer.
And all this matters so much more in a season where every team wants to stop focusing on 2021 as early as possible and switch its development work onto 2022 and the all-new technical rules that have been postponed. Every windtunnel run or CFD item committed to improving the AMR21 is detracted from the restricted allowance on next year’s car, which is much more important to the Aston Martin programme in the long term.
“The trade-off has to be how much more can we gain this year, at what expense for next year,” said Szafnauer about the development split between 2021 and 2022.
“That’s really hard to predict. At this time, we’re going to keep going in parallel.”
Aston Martin is absolutely correct not to write off this year, especially on the back of one weekend. There has been plenty of work already to rectify what was seen in Bahrain and there will be more to come in the future.
This team has a good track record with development so if it commits the resources it will likely find gains. The key questions are whether those gains will come at a cost to Aston Martin’s 2022 work, and if they’ll be enough to find the performance that other teams already seem to have.
That’s why a season that looked like it should be a nice bonus is already looking a lot more complicated.