Tuesday, 16 Apr, 2024

What lingering ‘deficiencies’ mean for an F1 underdog

What lingering 'deficiencies' mean for an F1 underdog

During Formula 1’s last regulations cycle, AlphaTauri emerged as a top-half-of-the-grid team by making steady but relentless progress that allowed it to fight at the front of the midfield with Ferrari and McLaren last year.

With major rule changes posing a huge challenge, it’s legitimate to ask whether what remains of one of F1’s smaller teams can sustain such progress.

Red Bull’s Christian Horner might have characterized the team formerly known as Toro Rosso as “a sister team rather than a junior team” in 2020, but it is still the poor relation in terms of its resources and facilities even in F1’s new cost cap era.

In 2021, AlphaTauri had the car to finish fifth in the constructors’ championship but managed only sixth. This was primarily because of rookie Yuki Tsunoda’s difficult season, with Pierre Gasly contributing 77.5% of the team’s points.

This was the second consecutive season of AlphaTauri underachievement in terms of championship position given it finished seventh in 2020 with the sixth fastest car on average.

Asked by The Race at the end of last year if he was worried about the risk of AlphaTauri sliding down the order given it has been punching above its weight recently, Gasly accepted there was a risk – but chose to accentuate the positive.

“I am aware of that and, at the same time, I am looking at the other side,” said Gasly. “McLaren might get it wrong, Ferrari might get it wrong, Alpine might get it wrong so it’s just so many unknowns that I don’t have the answer.

“I can basically spend the whole time thinking about it but until I get to Barcelona and try the car, I won’t really know.

“So I’m just aware, mentally prepared, that maybe it’s going to be less fun, maybe it’s not going to be as good, maybe it’s going to be way more difficult. But I hope we are as good because when you fight for P12, P13, these sorts of positions, it’s not as exciting.

“And obviously people don’t really see your performance. you learn [in other forms of motorsport] that if you do a good job you get rewarded with a trophy, champagne, points. F1 is a different story and it’s not always easy to accept.”

Gasly’s comments shouldn’t be taken as a negative prediction, as they merely answer the question posed about the risk of not being so competitive in 2022. But they do reflect the reality that if everyone extracts the same level of potential from their collective resources, AlphaTauri is a bottom half of the grid team.

Yet there are encouraging signs. AlphaTauri will use Red Bull’s 2022 rear suspension, gearbox and hydraulics meaning that even though it doesn’t have the full ‘menu’ of off-the-shelf parts available it does have a useful shortcut. It’s also a team that, under the technical leadership of Jody Egginton, who succeeded the McLaren-bound James Key, has made some sound, pragmatic decisions.

Last year’s car had no major vices, suggesting AlphaTauri has a good understanding of what it’s trying to achieve aerodynamically. Even weaker areas, such as its early-season slow-corner struggles, were improved on and in the closing stages of the season AlphaTauri had the third-quickest car over a single lap in Mexico, Brazil and Qatar. It has also now put behind a key weakness by transitioning to share Red Bull’s 60% scale wind tunnel, having been the last team to work at 50%.

Red Bull F1 wind tunnel

Team principal Franz Tost, who has led the team since its first season in 2006, has full confidence in his team’s ability to design and develop a strong car given the progress made in recent years.

But, in line with his opposite numbers at the other nine teams, he’s wary of making any predictions given it is impossible to benchmark your own car’s performance against the rest until on-track running begins.

“I trust our engineers because they have built two good cars,” said Tost in December. “The AT01 was already a good car last year and this year’s car was a step forward.

“Why shouldn’t they be able to make AT03, even if it’s a completely new car, also very competitive?

“From the technological side, there are always different philosophies and I just hope that we go in the right direction.

“Where we really end up, I don’t know, but I trust that our team, the aero group on Bicester, is doing a very good job and that they are going in the right direction.”

By finishing sixth in 2021, a position it also achieved in 2019, and also taking a victory at Monza in ’20, AlphaTauri has recaptured the form it had in the second half of its famous 2008 season. Then, the ex-Minardi team, spearheaded by a young Sebastian Vettel in his first full campaign, won the Italian Grand Prix and finished sixth in the standings.

Sebastian Vettel Toro Rosso F1

This was a very different team then. The STR03, which was introduced at the sixth race of the season in Monaco, was the 2008 Red Bull adapted for the Ferrari, rather than the Renault, engine. It was a genuine customer car, with no restrictions on what could be shared so it was no surprise the team slid backwards in 2009 having had to re-establish itself as a constructor.

The team’s story since then has been of gradually building up its resources and developing its base at Faenza in Italy – a few miles from Imola. Its latest acquisition is a building adjacent to its current site, which will be used as the site for a new building to, according to Tost, host “press and marketing and presentations”.

It’s also expanding its technical facilities, but Tost is well aware there is a long way to get to the same level as F1’s bigger teams.

“We still have to work on the infrastructure to optimize this side,” said Tost. “If I see the simulation tools I hear these top teams have, we simply don’t have because they invested in the last years millions for this.

“We have a good budget but we were never in a position to invest so much money in simulation tools and simulation tools are getting more and more important because we are running less at the track.

“Therefore, you need to have this, and I think that we still have some deficiencies.”

Franz Tost AlphaTauri F1

Simulation tools are particularly important during this recent phase of developing the 2022 car without the benefit of ever running on track. But given the team has stacked up well against larger teams in recent years, this isn’t necessarily a weakness that guarantees it will be behind.

For AlphaTauri, success in 2022 would be standing still. If it can repeat last year’s form – fifth-fastest on average, sometimes as high as third-quickest, and able to mix it with McLaren, Ferrari and Alpine that would be a strong performance.

And, crucially, would lay the foundations for it to continue to chip away at the deficit to the front during this latest rules cycle.

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