Alpine has surprised itself at the Portuguese Grand Prix with a range of factors contributing to the Formula 1 team’s huge step in performance.
The Anglo-French outfit scored its first points of the season at the last race at Imola but it was fortunate to even end up with a three-point haul, having only scored a 10th-placed finish on-the-road with Esteban Ocon before a penalty elevated him to ninth and Fernando Alonso to 10th.
There was a degree of expectation that Alpine could be more competitive at Algarve this weekend given its car looks more competitive in low-speed corners, but its ascent to the head of the midfield was not anticipated.
Alonso and Ocon ended Friday practice fifth and sixth, with Ocon best-of-the-rest in final practice – Alonso had a lap time quick enough for third deleted – and then Ocon qualified in a season-best sixth, just three-thousandths slower than Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr.
Though Alonso got knocked out of Q2 after battling a sudden loss of performance in qualifying, the two-time world champion was buoyant afterwards, declaring: “The car feels much better, much more alive and very competitive, in all the sessions. It was a very big step forward for us.”
Alpine’s car improvements, its event-specific preparations, the controversial Algarve track surface and the layout of the circuit have all played a part in this sudden progress.
The team started the season on the backfoot after suffering issues in the windtunnel and its quest to rectify the A521’s shortcomings began in earnest with a suite of updates at the previous race in the Imola.
Alpine trialled a modified front wing, new nose elements and experiments with the floor in Italy, which it was convinced improved the car but had hinted at the time might be more impactful at other tracks.
“Maybe it wasn’t that visible in terms of the pecking order but it did improve the car,” said executive director Marcin Budkowski in Portugal.
“We did an aero test [in Friday practice] and it’s quite a good step as well. And so, little by little, you make small improvements at the front, the rear, the middle of the car. But when they come together, sometimes they give you more than the sum of the parts.
“You’re building up driver confidence, you’re working a little bit on the aero overall stability. If the driver is a bit more confident, he can extract a bit more.”
Ocon, who produced a stunning lap in Q2 that put him fourth-fastest in the second qualifying segment, said the team had no “significant change” in terms of hardware at Algarve but had better understood its new package.
He had said at Imola that the car felt stable, while Alonso had also been complimentary of the balance in Italy.
“Here we are trying still to understand all those upgrades that we have, and extract the maximum out of those,” Ocon said after qualifying.
“In Imola the car felt decent to drive but the platform that we had, there was potentially more to come with it.
“We’re understanding a few things that we needed to do, which we’ve done here. We’ve tested them, and it paid off.
“If we keep finding little areas like this that we can improve we can probably bring the car even quicker.”
In addition to optimising the car, both drivers felt that Alpine’s preparations for Portugal had put it in a good place.
Alonso was particularly enthusiastic about the effort that had gone into this weekend, having previously admitted he was struggling to be completely comfortable given he has returned to F1 after two seasons away.
“What helped me more from the other two weekends was the work with the engineers,” said Alonso.
“We had like a long debrief on Monday [after Imola], we had another debrief on Thursday, I remember the whole weekend we were doing simulator work, me from home, they were doing at the factory, we were sharing things. We kept working.
“We did the track walk on Thursday [after arriving in Portugal], endless meetings after free practice.
“There was a lot more energy put into this weekend than any other weekend. That helped me a lot to understand the car better and to extract the maximum from the car already from FP1.
“So, the normal adaptation that you need into a new circuit, and into this year’s cars that we know are tricky, this weekend for me it was not an issue, and I felt 100% ready from lap one.
“Unfortunately, now in qualifying I didn’t get the result. Maybe they don’t show that.”
Though Alonso claimed he felt he was lacking performance from the first run in qualifying, he was still comfortably quick enough to progress to Q2. And had he replicated in Q2 the speed he showed on his aborted second run in Q1, he would likely have made the top-10 shootout.
Alonso seemed to be caught out in qualifying by the issue that other drivers had struggled with throughout the weekend, whereas Ocon’s comments suggested he had worked to adjust the car more than Alonso after Friday and also ahead of qualifying.
That might have made the crucial difference as both found the car tougher to handle in qualifying but Ocon’s performance was significantly less affected.
Even if that does not explain Alonso’s sudden Q2 slump, the tricky track surface and conditions did appear to be a factor in Alpine’s strength relative to its rivals, as the team handled the low-grip conditions better.
And that, combined with the circuit being more favourable to its car characteristics, seemed to give Alpine an edge.
“Last year, we had a nightmare here in the low-grip conditions,” said Budkowski. “We couldn’t get the tyres to work so we were a little bit anxious.
“It’s not great, the grip, but we got the car to work and the tyres to work reasonably well.
“So part of it is circuit, part of it is the tricky conditions. When there are tricky conditions there’s always winners and losers. We were the losers of the tricky conditions of last year or to a certain extent if you want not among the winners, but we seem to have handled them a bit better than others – at least until Q2 for one of the cars.”
The upshot was a “surprise”, Alonso admitted, but the range of factors makes it difficult to judge whether this is simply turning into a perfect storm for Alpine or could indicate real progress in the midfield.
Budkowski says next weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix will show how much of this step is down to the car and how much is the circumstances.
But Alonso is optimistic it at least means that Alpine can aim for high peaks in 2021, and aim to recreate how it performed last year in its Renault guise – when the team was a regular point scorer but also enjoyed the odd major haul, scoring more than one-third of its points across three races (Britain, Belgium and Sakhir) of the 17.
“We worked hard on the performance of the car after Bahrain and Imola,” said Alonso.
“We brought some updates at Imola, they felt good, they felt like an improvement in the car, but we didn’t probably see the results in Imola, the proof of that good feeling.
“But here we kept working. We prepared for this weekend in a very strong way with a lot of simulator work, a lot of analysis, a lot of review from Imola. It was a good surprise to see how the team reacted after the first two races, and we were constantly both cars in the top eight, top nine this weekend.
“Let’s see if it was just the characteristics here or if it’s a trend, so that we can recover a little bit the feeling that Renault had last year of being in the mix.
“It is hopefully a sign that we can repeat this kind of performance in a few races this year. Track-to-track it seems to benefit different teams.
“We could be one of those teams in the mix, that at some tracks and some weekends we are able to score big points – and [the Portuguese Grand Prix is] the first opportunity.”