The first instalment of the new Alpine adventure under new management was awaited with almost as much intrigue as the return of its driver, the great Fernando Alonso after two years out of Formula 1.
During testing it was very difficult to read the form of this team which – under a different name last year – was fighting for third in the championship (even if it finished fifth) and which scored three podiums.
On the surface, testing suggested it had fallen behind some of its rivals from 2020 (McLaren) and been leapfrogged by others (Ferrari, AlphaTauri).
The practice sessions leading up to qualifying gave a similar reading. But in the event, Alonso’s graduation to Q3 and recording the ninth-fastest time there was better than might have been expected.
Even more encouraging is that there would seem to be some low-hanging fruit in the performance development of both the car and Alonso in the coming events.
Two facts frame this analysis. The car was much more competitive in the cool of qualifying than the heat of the daytime – and this is to do with its rear tyre usage.
Secondly, Alonso – who had looked perfectly at home during testing – was still very rusty when it came to fully exploiting the car on fresh rubber and low fuel.
Those two things combined initially made his performance alongside team-mate Esteban Ocon somewhat unfavourable. Here’s how they compared run-for-run during the practices.
Their FP2 long runs averaged much the same but were done on different compounds of tyre. You get the idea: Coming back after so long away, Alonso was understandably a little behind the 8-ball when it came to extracting the last bit of performance from car and tyre.
The general trend was positive, the deficit was reducing, but he was still trailing Ocon by around 0.4s as they headed into qualifying.
“I wasn’t totally confident with the car balance in any of the practice sessions this weekend,” he said.
“It was difficult. I lacked confidence a little bit in the rear end of the car. Braking performance was also very different to the test.”
But with a track temperature in the 30s (degrees Celsius) into qualifying rather than the 50s, the car was a much more comfortable drive.
We lost the comparison to Ocon unfortunately, because he made an error on his first Q1 run and caught yellow flags on his second which meant he failed to get out of Q1.
“It’s a shame for Esteban because I think he could have been in Q3 as well,” confirmed Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski.
“His weekend was pretty solid until now. He was actually looking a bit better than Fernando going into qualifying.”
However, even Ocon felt that the gap between himself and Alonso had closed.
“I had had a lock-up into T8 and ran wide, which was a mistake on my side. But Fernando was quick in that session and it would have been close between us.”
The tactical Q2 error of Red Bull and AlphaTauri in retaining medium tyres for the second runs of Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda respectively allowed Alonso to graduate to Q3. But to take advantage of that he’d had to out-qualify an Aston and two Alfa Romeos.
His ninth place in Q3 put him ahead of Lance Stroll’s Aston at around 0.3s adrift of McLaren.
“These cars on low fuel and new tyres are really extreme in terms of performance and you have to really trust the car and believe you can go that fast,” Alonso said afterwards.
“It was a very nice feeling. In the first qualifying of the year it was a bit of an unknown how fast we were so every time I came to the garage it was a moment of curiosity looking at the screen and seeing where you ended up. It was a fun quali.”
Ocon feels the fact that the car is so much better on a cool track – something Budkowski echoes – bodes well.
“This place heats up your rear tyres like crazy,” he said.
“So if you are working them too hard you will find out here and we could see this. We’ve made huge gains with the car since testing; consistent and huge.
“We made a further step each session yesterday and today. The more we are discovering, the more pace we’re finding.
“We need to work on balance here and there, find grip in certain parts of the track. But we have clear ways of developing the car and a very clear direction from me and Fernando about where we need to go. A small gain in this packed part of the grid can find you a lot of places.”
“I didn’t have any expectations on the exact result,” said Alonso. “I was just doing our best, then seeing where we ended up.
“It’s nice to see we can be in top 10 even though there are a couple of cars behind us which are really faster than us. We are very close in this bunch though. You can be eighth or 14th in one tenth and a half. That’s something we’ll probably need to fight every weekend.
“We need to learn more about the car. We’re happy with the progress since testing and during this weekend.
“I’m confident we can do a good season but it has to be race by race. I have to get better myself first of all. Today, it was the very first time on this grippy tyres and track to extract the maximum from the car and I will need a couple of races probably to get up to speed.
“Even the same [in the race] the first time, formation lap, lights, first corner. It sounds simple things for a race driver but after two years it’s going to feel like new for me. Pit stops under 2s, all these things I will have to live it for the very first time again.
“Even the out lap preparation is never the same as in testing when you can pace yourself and prepare by yourself. But in the chaos of qualifying with everyone trying to get space at the same time, I lived again today for first time in two years.
“I’m sure I’ll get better in preparing the tyres, positioning on the out lap, getting the maximum from the tyres which are very peaky. Need to learn how much you can push on those super performance laps the tyre is offering to you.”
Just as he had no preconceptions about qualifying, so Alonso isn’t focusing ahead of the race on what a good position would be.
“I need the information, I need to feel how the tyre degradation is going, how the balance changes. A lot of people around me on the grid have more knowledge of those things. I want to have those things in the pocket [after the race]. If that’s P7 or P11 OK. If it’s P15, OK; I just want that information by tomorrow night.”