How Aston Martin Is Shaking Up the F1 Power Structure
A year ago at this time, Aston Martin was last in the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship, had yet to even score a point.
This year, Aston Martin is second and giving Mercedes and Ferrari a challenge for best of the rest behind Red Bull.
No one is fueling the turnaround more than driver Fernando Alonso, who is third in the F1 Drivers' Championship standings with two podium finishes.
Aston Martin has been one of the success stories of the early stages of Formula 1’s 2023 campaign.
Can it stay there, and can it win this year?
From Last to Second in a Year
It is quite a remarkable situation for Aston Martin to be a merited second in the Constructors’ Championship after the opening pair of events. It is tied for in points with Mercedes with 38, and ahead on tiebreaker of best individual result. Ferrari is fourth with 26.
Not since 2011—when McLaren was a bona fide front-runner—has a team other than Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari finished as high as second in the standings.
A year ago at this time, Aston Martin was last in the Constructors’ Championship, had yet to even score a point. Plus, it had not even reached its season's low point—that came in Melbourne where Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll crashed on multiple occasions in the recalcitrant early-spec AMR22.
“It was a difficult moment—and the best moment,” said Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack. “We sat together, all of us, after that event, and the way we stuck together, it could have been easy to fall apart as a team, but we decided to work ourselves out of it.”
By that stage Aston Martin knew its early-season concept was flawed. In fact, it knew months earlier, having altered design direction prior to the car’s launch, though the heavily revised AMR22 could not be readied until the fifth round in Spain.
It immediately drew the attention of the paddock amid the AMR22’s similarity to Red Bull’s RB18, and was even dubbed the green bull, to the extent that Red Bull playfully hierarchy sipped the green edition of its energy drink on the pit wall that weekend.
The upgraded AMR22 was consequently a regular midfield contender and Aston Martin improved to finish seventh overall, level on points with sixth-placed Alfa Romeo, despite effectively starting the new era months behind its competitors.
The AMR23 is a significant development of the late-season AMR22 and crucially its design was influenced by Dan Fallows and Eric Blandin; they joined in 2022 as Aston Martin’s new technical director and deputy technical director, from Red Bull and Mercedes respectively.
They are just two key figures that have arrived as part of a large recruitment drive undertaken by Lawrence Stroll, who has not been shy in his long-term vision for Aston Martin since acquiring the stricken Force India team in mid-2018.
The Fernando Factor
Fallows and Blandin are two key figures to have arrived—the third is slightly more high profile.
Fernando Alonso signed a multi-year deal with Aston Martin in mid-2022, replacing Vettel, after not being satisfied with Alpine’s inability to offer him more than a one-year deal. At that stage, it was a bold gamble from Alonso because while the team offered a long-term vision few anticipated such a leap in early 2023. Yet that leap has also been facilitated by the arrival of Alonso.
The two-time champion’s abilities remain undimmed, even at the age of 41, and his relentless hunger has galvanized Aston Martin.
“He’s incredibly motivated, incredibly competitive and he's brought a huge amount of energy to the team,” said Fallows. “He keeps saying that he'll just carry on as long as he can possibly go. And that's very infectious.”
For almost a decade Alonso has been stymied by uncompetitive machinery, initially in the dying embers of his Ferrari stint, then the disastrous McLaren-Honda era, followed by two seasons with an Alpine squad entrenched in the midfield.
Alonso has been unwavering in the belief of his abilities, would describe drives to lowly positions as the best of his career, and maintain he can still win a third world title.
Early 2023 has solidified his personal view to the public while also demonstrating to Formula 1’s new generation of fans just why he was such an electric front-runner in the 2000s.
Alonso was brilliantly incisive in Bahrain, completing inch-perfect passes on Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz, and briefly headed the field in Saudi Arabia after his strong start (despite the slight grid misjudgement).
Finishing third in both races to the runaway Red Bulls was the maximum on offer on both occasions, and marked Alonso’s first back-to-back podiums since 2013. To put the praise fully on Alonso would nonetheless be a disservice to teammate Lance Stroll.
Stroll displayed resilience previously unseen in his career by racing to sixth in Bahrain despite suffering wrist fractures just two weeks beforehand—an injury which caused him to miss testing.
Stroll then pulled off the move of the race in Saudi Arabia, sweeping around Carlos Sainz at the banked Turn 13 on the first lap, before an electrical glitch halted his AMR23.
Aston Has Had Help
Aston Martin was second-fastest across one-lap in Bahrain, second-best in the race in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and third-fastest in qualifying in Saudi Arabia.
On each occasion it has faced a sizeable margin to the runaway Red Bull team.
While Aston Martin has made impressive year-on-year progress to leap clear of the midfield it has also profited from the malaise affecting Ferrari and Mercedes.
Ferrari’s lead driver from 2022, Charles Leclerc, has had two races impacted by the unexpected engine failure which struck in Bahrain, while he was running ahead of Alonso in third. The penalty for engine parts swap incurred after his retirement in Bahrain and elegated Leclerc from second to 12th on the grid in Saudi Arabia, from where he recovered to seventh.
Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz was only sixth and conceded that Ferrari’s display in Saudi Arabia cemented weaknesses it learnt in Bahrain in terms of excessive tire degradation, particularly when following other cars.
Mercedes, meanwhile, recognized early on that its W14 is flawed and that sizeable changes will be required to return the team to its expected level. That will be concentrated on its sidepod concept but it is acutely cognizant that other areas need overhauling if its deficit is to vanish.
Lewis Hamilton in particular has struggled to feel connected to the W14 and pointed to a “specific thing,” about which he did not elaborate, that is holding him back.
The Next Steps
This is a team which since its existence in 1991 has had a reputation of a canny underdog stymied by its financial limitations. As Jordan it claimed a handful of victories and after a tumultuous phase as Midland and Spyker it emerged as Force India and pulled off podiums in unlikely circumstances. During its brief stint as Racing Point‚ before Stroll rebranded it as Aston Martin for 2021—it delivered a strong 2020 car after imitating Mercedes’ 2019 package and won a race.
It was always an efficient outfit, with capable individuals, and there was always the notion of ‘what could this team do without a compromised financial ceiling and without rivals being able to spend hundreds of millions more.’ Well, while 2021—amid floor regulation changes which hurt the team—and 2022 were mis-steps, 2023 has started brightly.
“I think we need to be careful saying (we are) second (fastest)—I think we can safely say we made a substantial improvement,” said Krack.
Krack acknowledged that “we felt we were a bit less competitive in the high-speed in Bahrain” and that the AMR23’s performance at Jeddah erased those fears but stressed “we have two data samples from two completely different tracks—in these two we were competitive but there are some other (tracks) and we must not underestimate that.”
“We are battling here with people that have a different firing power we have in terms of people and infrastructure, as well as being used to do that.”
That is a pertinent point but Formula 1 is now operating in a cost cap era, meaning limitless money cannot be thrown at problems, while Aston Martin itself has a solid platform.
Aston Martin is also now mere weeks away from moving into its new factory at Silverstone and Krack has been buoyed by the atmosphere in the camp.
“It’s incredible—you cannot believe if it if you do not live it,” said Krack. “There is a huge momentum and energy in the team, I’m looking forward to going to work, you almost have to push people out (of the factory) to go home, people looking at stuff, analyzing, trying to improve, it’s really a pleasure to work for the team.”
Alonso believes a victory is possible in 2023 in the right circumstances.
“We need some help from (Red Bull) but it will happen for them eventually when they cannot always finish first and second,” he said. “One day it (could be) the pit stop, one day the gearbox, if Max had (in qualifying) in the race he’s going to retire the car, so there’s going to be some circuits that maybe reliability or whatever could help us and hopefully in those races we take the opportunity.”
Even if Aston Martin does slip behind Ferrari and/or Mercedes it is looking at worst a very good fourth in the championship and already has two podiums, which would far exceed its preseason targets.