Why Alpine’s foray into Formula 1 is working – and why the team is optimistic for the future
It’s Saturday night at the Hungaroring and I set up a conversation with Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi to discuss the team’s progress since Renault’s rebranding ahead of the current campaign. In the first 15 seconds, he admitted that the team was “not where we should be” as he feels fifth in the constructors’ championship (two places more than the seventh they occupied at this point) ” matches the car’s natural rhythm “.
None of us knew that 24 hours later a miracle would occur and that their situation would be significantly different. After a chaotic first corner in slippery conditions, Esteban Ocon not only came out of eighth place on the grid unscathed, but he found himself in the unusual position of leader of the Grand Prix.
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Most notably, he was still there 71 laps later under the checkered flag to secure his first victory at Alpine. Overnight, Alpine almost doubled their points total to 77 (Fernando Alonso also contributed a nice fourth place) to lift them to fifth place ahead of AlphaTauri and Aston Martin. In the blink of an eye, they got back on track.
Dream day for Alpine as Esteban Ocon wins in Hungary
Even before that heady day in Budapest, Rossi was excited about what he had seen in his first seven months on the job – where he was tasked with bringing the Enstone-based team back to the forefront and improve the Alpine brand. “It’s a strange year,” he says. “Little has been done on the current car and more on the next one, so it’s hard to make up for the points we lost at the start of the season. In other circumstances, we might have speeded up a bit to get back on track. Here, it’s kind of what gets lost, gets lost.
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“On the other hand, I have reason to be optimistic. The team works much more as a team than it seemed last year. I can see a lot of cooperation between the two sides of the garage. In every race, in every session, I hear the engineers exchanging advice on why Fernando or Esteban went faster in such and such a corner. This is facilitated by the fact that these two are more often than not on a similar tuning so that we can share most of that tuning from car to car. That’s good, because the dynamics are good.
“On the track, we build our weekends much better. Both drivers overqualified the car quite often as it qualified much better than its natural pace which is a testament to the good work here. We take advantage of every performance engine that is left outside the car itself. The drivers are put in optimal conditions, they are confident and the team is listening to feedback. All of this is a good basis for the future and makes me quite optimistic for the day when we have a faster car.
With radical new technical rules coming into play next year, every team knows this is an opportunity to take a big step forward in terms of performance – and Alpine is no different. Rossi believes their car has had inherent issues which are difficult to deal with due to the stability of the rules.
A blank sheet of paper then offers an opportunity. “We have a heavy heritage in terms of the technical choices we have made and we cannot catch up,” he adds. “We have to be successful from the start, because then we have everything, more or less, to be successful. We are not radically different from others. Obviously, there are departments where we are stronger than others, departments where we are relatively weaker. But we have a similar structure, probably similar talents.
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“It’s more a question of starting point, which was not the same. And it shows this year. This car has reached its limit. We can burn the midnight oil on it and we’re not going to find 30 aero points. Others still have room for improvement. Some bets that were taken were wrong or not ideal. But that’s life. Everyone has lost their bet except Mercedes.
“For 2022, we are starting from a good base and we have the capacity to systematically and continuously improve performance from race to race. This is the most important thing. Next year we will see if we are well equipped to do so. I think we are.
To get the most out of everything they have next year, Alpine needs two pilots operating at a high level. And based on what we’ve seen this year, they’ve got just that. At Alonso they have a super-motivated returning two-time world champion who shook off the rust to prove time and time again in 2021 why he is one of the real greats in F1.
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“Everyone – and I must say, including me – was wondering where he would be [when he returned], said Rossi. “It was more of a ‘let’s see’ case. The first six races people had doubts, but we didn’t do it internally. Before the first race we didn’t know where he was going to be, but as soon as we saw him in Bahrain we knew everything would be fine. It looked like he last raced in December as he lost none of his skill or sharpness and we knew it was just a matter of races until ‘he finds his way back. He is very strong and I am super happy.
Fernando pushes so hard that he elevates the performance of the whole team
And it’s clear, says Rossi, that Alonso’s presence has the positive impact on staff that management hoped his hiring would spark. “There is the motivation to do well,” he says. “Fernando is a double world champion who should already be five or six titles in different conditions. You want to be on par with him because you know he will demand excellence. It will double click on each choice but in a very good way.
“He never fires people, he asks just for the sake of progress. If you are the recipient, you very rarely feel like they are criticizing you. It’s just that he wants to go a step further and analyze if there is no other alternative. He pushes so hard that it improves the performance of the whole team. People want to be on par with this and they over deliver all the time. “
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At Ocon they have a hungry young rider who has shown his potential at Force India, is highly rated by Mercedes with whom he was part of their junior program and handled Alonso’s arrival well. When he had a series of races where he seemed lost, the Frenchman did not let his head fall.
And once given a new chassis, with further analysis showing there were issues with the previous one, it was immediately back to its best. And then there is this victory in Hungary. He will forever be known as the driver who gave Alpine his first Grand Prix victory.
“Once we changed the complete chassis for Silverstone, we realized that there were parts that weren’t working properly,” says Rossi. “It was two or three tenths missing from the rest. This year, it’s a big gap. Two-tenths were in the car, one-tenth was in his head trying to figure out what was going on – whether it was him or the car. As soon as you give it a car like it used to, the performance is exactly the same as it offered. He’s back exactly where we left off.
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Ocon is tied until the end of 2024 and Alonso until at least the end of 2022, so medium-term opportunities are limited for Alpine Driver Academy drivers Oscar Piastri, Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard, who are currently first, second and 12th respectively in Formula 2. Although Rossi accepts that he has a challenge, especially since Alpine does not have partner teams on the grid, he is convinced that there is has means to move forward.
“I have a rich man’s problem,” he says. “The performance of the Academy is high. It is a testament to the work done by Mia [Sharizman, Alpine Academy Director]. I don’t think they expected the number of drivers to come knocking on the door at the same time, which is good, but it’s a problem, because now we have to guarantee a good result for these drivers, which are part of the Alpine Family.
“But there are plenty of options. First of all, we always have a spare driver available each year, which is normally a good first step towards a permanent seat. We also potentially, at some point – I’ll refrain from putting a date – Fernando at some point will probably decide it’s time for him to retire. As long as it does [what he’s doing currently], I’m happy to keep him on the team [but] you must agree with me that it is a question mark. Everyone wonders when. If he does as he does today, I will keep him for a long time. But there is potentially a position there.
“And there are always partner teams. George [Russell] being in a Williams, obviously connected to the power supply from the power supply unit but not necessarily. We can imagine placing one of our drivers in another team, that’s fine with us. It is not impossible. It’s not like Alpine is the only way after Academy. I’m sure we’ll find placements for all of these drivers over time. It’s just a matter of being patient, I guess.
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And time is something Alpine has. They are committed to the new Accord Concorde and have the support of Groupe Renault’s board of directors for the race operation. And while they’re not quite hitting their goals on the right track right now, things are going in the right direction – and there is some good news that is not on the right track, too. Before the team was renamed, very few people knew what Alpine was. Just a few months ago, Rossi says there has been a 70% increase in brand queries – and that interest translates into sales.
If this continues, he will provide the funds to “finance Alpine’s efforts in F1,” Rossi said. It is this kind of efficient business model that will make Formula 1 work for Alpine and Renault in the long run – and could give them the foundation to ensure that Ocon’s triumph in Hungary is not unique.