Aston Martin will unveil its rebranded Formula 1 team and 2021 livery at a launch event in March, but it is already displaying an abundance of excitement and optimism.
With the new name, a new title sponsor in IT giant Cognizant, and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel replacing Sergio Perez alongside Lance Stroll, Aston has a lot to triumph in the early days of its new era, which officially began in the first week of January.
Aston presently reflects the glow of New Year optimism and a classic honeymoon period. The question is whether that will be sustained when this ‘new’ team hits the track?
It’s more than two months before we see whether reality will significantly alter the narrative. However, there are plenty of positive declarations from Aston already – and enough hard evidence to scrutinise it.
How much will ‘Aston’ era actually bring?
The transformation of the Racing Point team into Aston seems on the surface quite similar to Sauber’s Alfa Romeo partnership. The name above the door changes, the livery does too, but otherwise it’s the same team run by the same people.
However, the Aston rebrand is a legacy of team chairman Lawrence Stroll leading another consortium to invest heavily in the automotive manufacturer. So this is a deep-rooted tie-up with long-term plans that aims to tap into Aston’s might for off-track benefits, which in turn gives the established, largely unchanged racing organisation a chance to exploit its potential.
Szafnauer sees a clear, tangible shift in the Aston era. He says that “with a new name, committed shareholders, fresh investment, and an experienced team, we believe we have all the ingredients in place to compete for even more podiums and hopefully victories too”. And it won’t stop with a short-term makeover.
“By the end of 2022, we’ll also have a fantastic new factory at Silverstone, giving the team the space and infrastructure to realise our ambitions,” he says.
“We have a new title sponsor in Cognizant with the expertise to add value in all areas of our IT operations and make a valuable contribution to our performance on-track.
“It’s the start of a new journey and I can sense an extra energy in the team, with a determination to push performance further than ever before.”
Our verdict: This is at the heart of the excitement around the Aston era. And it’s justified. OK, it’s not Aston technology, the car’s not being designed or built in Aston’s headquarters. But it’s an Aston team and the new era will tap into as much as possible within that.
When Aston first announced Racing Point would become its works team, it was easy to scoff and say it’s not a ‘real’ works team. That argument misses the point. Racing Point was already evolving quickly: this era aims to enhance that process.
Will a vital Force India/Racing Point strength remain?
Szafnauer says the process of becoming Aston Martin F1 has been a “mammoth task”. This deal was done last year and plenty of work has since been undertaken to ready the team for its rebranding.
While it’s not a matter of readying a new factory or upgrading facilities, it’s also not as trivial as a few new stickers in place.
“It’s easy to forget that we’ve been putting the groundwork in place for a brand-new era alongside a very challenging global setting, all the while balancing those tasks with our most successful Formula 1 season to date,” says Szafnauer.
“I think it demonstrates that while this is a new team name and identity, we have retained the strong backbone that has guided us through some tough times to where we are today.”
The reference to the team’s immediate past is important. In all the excitement of preparing for its new era, and everything it brings, Aston is also wary of a vital old strength that must remain.
Though it is Racing Point that has morphed into Aston Martin, ‘Team Silverstone’ is largely the same as in its Force India days – just without the financial concerns. And as Force India, the team was ruthlessly resourceful with a tremendous reputation for punching upwards.
Szafnauer says: “While the challenge was once establishing ourselves as the most efficient team on the grid, now there’s an exciting opportunity to establish ourselves as a top team, while still maintaining that efficiency, in order to add an exciting chapter to the Aston Martin legacy.”
Our verdict: This, long-term, might be Aston Martin’s biggest challenge. It always used to punch above its weight as a lean, nimble fighter. Now it needs to avoid being heavy and slow.
If Aston’s processes remain streamlined it will have the ability to react quickly and effectively to new challenges, and meet them more effectively without any financial concerns. But that is easier said than done.
Becoming Aston also makes it a more corporate identity and such changes can muddle processes and cultures. Avoiding the drawbacks and seizing the benefits will define whether Aston makes good on the potential Szafnauer rightly talks up.
Is Vettel/Stroll the right pairing?
Racing Point became a race-winning F1 team last year thanks to outgoing driver Perez, who also finished fourth in the drivers’ championship. He was the driving force behind the team’s best season – even including its Force India days.
But Perez had been dropped months before that Sakhir victory, to make room for unexpected free agent Vettel. It is a big shift for the team, and in many ways a no-brainer – even accounting for Vettel’s poor final Ferrari season alongside Charles Leclerc.
“In Sebastian, we have a proven four-time world champion with experience of helping teams become race-winning and championship-contending outfits,” says Szafnauer.
“That’s why he is such an important signing for us. He brings a winning mentality and we will all undoubtedly learn a lot from him on this journey.”
Vettel partners Lance Stroll, the son of team chairman Lawrence and a driver with considerable potential that he has only shown in bursts so far. However, Szafnauer believes Stroll “really made strides in all areas of his racing” and expects him to develop further in 2021.
“We know if we give him the tools, he’s more than capable of helping the team reach its goals,” Szafnauer says.
“We also think Sebastian will bring out the best in Lance, with Lance pushing Sebastian hard in return, so we’re delighted with our 2021 line-up.
“It’s the ideal blend of experience, race-winning knowhow, and raw talent.”
Verdict: This relies entirely on two things. First, that a miserable 2020 season proves to be an outlier for Vettel and the team’s confidence in restoring his glory days is justified.
Second, that Stroll elevates his game from being sporadically good but wildly inconsistent. He isn’t exactly inexperienced anymore, heading into his fifth season, but he is still only 22. There is scope to mature and develop, and he has the ultimate motivation in Aston and a colossally good mentor in Vettel.
Vettel back to his pomp and Stroll making a step as a grand prix driver would indeed give Aston a very well-rounded and powerful driver line-up. It is entirely possible that both situations develop in Aston’s favour – but equally it would be naïve to believe that is a guaranteed outcome with no risk of it not happening as hoped.
Will it do the name justice?
Aston Martin has been involved in F1 in recent years as Red Bull’s title sponsor but that was very little compared to what the Racing Point rebrand means. Aston will be accountable for everything, good or bad, in the coming years.
It would require something spectacular to go wrong to repeat the ill-fated Aston F1 attempt of 1959 and 1960. However, what counts as success or failure in the modern day is rather different. And the team recognises what an opportunity this is, and what it will signify.
“Representing such an iconic brand is a huge privilege for every member of the team,” says Szafnauer.
“It might sound daunting, but we’ve been competing in Formula 1 for 30 years [under various names], winning races and taking podiums along the way – often against the odds.
“We’ve earned a well-deserved reputation for punching above our weight, so we’re confident we can do the Aston Martin name proud right from the get-go.”
Verdict: Even maintaining 2020 Racing Point form would put it among proper company and do the name justice. But Aston Martin is one of the most famous names in motoring, and to challenge the manufacturers it views itself the equivalent (or superior) of in an automotive context means growing to fight Mercedes and Ferrari on-track in the long-term.
As Edd Straw outlined in his piece, there are also off-track factors to consider in terms of the brand impact of Aston’s F1 team.
The factors are in favour of the team living up to the name, though. Especially if it gets the long-term devotion a project like this merits.