AlphaTauri had the third-fastest car on both the Portuguese and Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekends, taking top-five finishes in each race. While it’s been the seventh-fastest car on average over 2020 as a whole, can it now be considered a consistent force at the front of the midfield pack?
The progress is undeniable. While AlphaTauri’s pace at Imola was obvious, with Pierre Gasly fourth on the grid and retiring early on from fifth place and team-mate Daniil Kvyat coming through to fourth, it was less clear at the Algarve circuit.
There, Gasly qualified only 10th but set AlphaTauri’s fastest laptime of the weekend in Q1, which was slower only than the best Mercedes and Red Bull can offer. He then came through to fifth in the race.
These performances were actually more convincing for AlphaTauri than Gasly’s win at Monza, given he was racing on the periphery of the points when he made his fortunately-timed pre-safety car pitstop on his way to victory in the Italian Grand Prix.
Although AlphaTauri is out of contention for third place in the constructors’ championship thanks to being 46 points behind Renault with four races remaining, it is certainly going to be a threat for best-of-the-rest on individual race weekends and could yet challenge Ferrari for sixth place given the gap between the two teams is just 14 points.
Both the Portugal and Emilia Romagna weekends were unusual. The former was in cool temperatures on a low-abrasion circuit, while there was just one free practice session to get on top of the car at Imola. But Gasly believes that AlphaTauri’s strong understanding of the car and capacity to get on top of it at less familiar tracks – a relevant strength for F1’s return to Turkey, especially given the newly-resurfaced Portugal-style track – has been key.
“The upgrades on the car worked quite well in the last few races,” said Gasly when asked by The Race about recent form. “Our understanding with the car is good now, we managed to extract the maximum out of it at the right time.
“Especially in the last two weekends, two tracks with no references from the past which give a big challenge to the teams to find the right set-up straight away. The team did a solid job even with very limited data from the past to really give us the opportunity to push at its maximum.
“Portimao was new, Imola, we only had one session, the car always clicked straight away out of the box. I don’t know how it was for the others, but on our side the team did a very strong job on that. Istanbul is a new track, with limited data, so hopefully it can be another good opportunity for us this weekend.”
Kvyat has also enjoyed improved form in recent races thanks to improvements in the feel of the AlphaTauri steering in a process that started at Spa. Over the past five races, his average qualifying deficit to Gasly has been just over a tenth of a second, down from just under two tenths for the season as a whole.
The Russian believes the set-up work and capacity to understand the car plays a decisive role in the battle for best-of-the-rest given how condensed the midfield pack is.
“Depending on the conditions, depending on the track, we were sometimes having very strong pace. Sometimes, we could have the third-best car like in Imola, maybe sometimes sixth-seventh,” said Kvyat.
“It’s so hard to be consistently best of the rest this year because it’s such a tight midfield. Someone might find good set-up direction on Friday, then they’re strong on Saturday and Sunday. It’s been rotating a bit this year between three or four teams, and luckily we were one of those teams.
“Of course, it takes a team job, good car development, updates, consistent understanding of the car, improvement. It takes many things like this and hopefully we know and understand the car a little bit better, how to put it in the right window. And when we put it in the right window, it’s always performed well.
“But sometimes, you have weekends where you slightly under deliver and that can happen as well. But we aim to always deliver the best out of the car.”
AlphaTauri benefits from ever-closer links with sister team Red Bull Racing, although it does go its own way with aerodynamic philosophy and some mechanical aspects.
It runs 2019-specification Red Bull gearbox, rear suspension (externals and internals) and hydraulics. But while some of the front suspension internals are from Red Bull, the external structures such as the wishbones are AlphaTauri’s own.
This strategy allows AlphaTauri to focus its limited resources on areas where it can make big performance gains. Combined with a more iterative approach to car development that was adopted in 2019, this ensures the team has both scope for improvement and the processes to show that on track.
“It’s a combination of a lot of factors,” said technical Jody Egginton when asked at Imola about the team’s upturn in form.
“For probably two seasons now, our development process has been sort of a rolling development. We’re turning up with pretty much something every event, some events bigger updates, some events smaller, and we’ve carried on that process.
“But also aligned with that, you are also optimising the car for all of the set-ups. We under delivered at Nurburgring, we felt the car had more in it than we managed to get there. In Portimao the car worked really well in the race, it was fantastic. And then [at Imola], we’ve managed to get the car working really well.
“But we’re constantly learning about the car when working with it. There’s a steady stream of new parts. It’s tailing off a little bit now, because we’re nearing the end of the season but it is just this constant evolution.
“We’ve moved away from the big packages and we’re just constantly working away at the car trying to optimise everything really and each event we’re learning more and getting a bit more out of the car.”
While it’s optimistic to suggest AlphaTauri can stay consistently as the third-fastest team, what’s clear is that having started the season behind that group it has now established itself in the thick of it.
For a team that talked about finishing fourth in the constructors’ championship pre-season, and that keeps stressing its desire to be more than just a junior team to Red Bull, that’s genuinely encouraging progress.