Could AlphaTauri be 2021's F1 surprise after Bahrain ‘shocker’?

Could AlphaTauri be the surprise package of the 2021 Formula 1 season? The sample of one provided by the Bahrain Grand Prix certainly suggests so.

Could AlphaTauri be 2021's F1 surprise after Bahrain ‘shocker’?

On paper a ninth place finish for rookie Yuki Tsunoda represented a solid if unspectacular start to the season for the Italian team. However, it was the pace that the AT02 showed on Saturday that really caught the attention of rivals.

Tsunoda sailed through Q1 in second after a lap that McLaren boss Andreas Seidl called "a bit of a shocker,” so impressive was it to the other midfield runners.

Indeed that form encouraged AlphaTauri to take a punt on the medium tyre for Q2, something that wouldn’t normally be on the team’s agenda. Pierre Gasly made it through in eighth place, but Tsunoda – caught out by the change of compound mid-session – had to settle for 13th.

Back on the softs for Q3, Gasly then secured fifth spot on the grid, behind only Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Charles Leclerc.

Alas it went wrong for the Frenchman in the race when wiped his front wing off in contact with Daniel Ricciardo. Meanwhile Tsunoda lost places after what he admitted was an over-cautious first F1 start. His subsequent strong recovery, which saw him take ninth from Lance Stroll on the last lap, gave some indication of the wasted potential.

Bahrain was a sample of one but that qualifying speed indicated that AlphaTauri has got its act together in 2021.

Don’t forget that last year’s car was capable of winning a race, so perhaps it should not be such a big surprise that a carefully refined version, with a boost provided by Honda’s latest power unit, is an even more competitive package.

"It's a combination of many things,” says technical director Jody Egginton.

"Last year we thought we had a good car but we were not typically in a situation where we'd be saying, should we see if we can sneak through [Q2] on the harder tyre?

"The numbers said it could work. And I think that's a sign that the car is working well. Everyone's pushing hard to develop the car, the power unit has come along, the chassis has come along.

"A lot of young engineers in the team have been quietly growing over the last two, three years. Their confidence is improving, and we've got a really good direction.

"Plus Yuki has come in and he is a talented guy, and Pierre's comfortable in the team and providing fantastic input. And it's all coming together.

"I can't stress enough that the engineering team, the design team and the aero team, they are all maturing, we're sort of getting our identity and working together and building methodologies and philosophies.

"I guess that's one of the outcomes when the car improves, you have this newfound freedom to think, ‘Well, actually, we can take that tyre into the race.’”

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Continuity is always beneficial, and while some of its immediate rivals have undergone disruptive changes of identity, management or power unit supplier, or have had to rein spending in to meet the budget cap, AlphaTauri has quietly built on what it has.

The team even opted to stick with its proven rear end rather than take an upgrade to RBR’s 2020 gearbox, which the rules allowed. The senior team’s handling struggles last year were a red flag.

The one major novelty has been a switch from a 50% to 60% wind tunnel – as the last team to move to the bigger scale model. That created a lot of extra work over the winter, but the change should reap dividends. It’s one step back to take two forward.

Egginton believes that the team coped well with adapting to the change of tunnel and made good progress into the first track running of the AT02.

"Our programme was just to really systematically learn our car,” he explains. "We spent a lot of time gathering aero data, because this car was developed in our 50% wind tunnel, and we've since moved to the 60% wind tunnel.

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"There's a lot of correlation to be done. We’re now developing the car in a different wind tunnel. It was born in one place, and now it gets developed in another place.

"There's a lot of aero work, and just trying to understand correlation, and also what the differences were due to the regulation change. Also what Yuki wanted from the car.

"And then obviously, the new Honda PU, running through all the checks and understanding that it delivered what we expected, and was working as we expected.

"In the period between the test and the race we've gone away and just basically gone through everything.”

Having established a solid baseline with a strong testing performance the team honed the car for the Bahrain race weekend, while also planning further ahead.

It helped enormously that the team had a productive test, while some rivals had a lot of firefighting to do. Gasly actually completed more laps than any other driver.

"We've already got developments in the pipeline,” says Egginton. "With the things we're planning to bring the aero data from the test validated whether that was the right way to go, and we were just building up knowledge of the behaviour of the car.

"And then we brought a car [to the race] with certain differences, a few small developments, and just a continuation. Fortunately, we left the test with what seemed to be a pretty reasonable car.

"And we've just gone away and gone what are the weaknesses? What can we do about that? What can we do and where were other people? Where do we think they were running their power unit? Because everyone had very diverse programmes in testing.

"So we spent a lot of time looking for all of that. But we just quietly got on with our thing. It was clear that we were in the mix and [it was] don’t let ourselves get distracted too much, focus on ourselves, because we're in charge of what we're doing."

 

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The aerodynamic rule changes for 2021 are the key to everyone’s performance, and AlphaTauri’s switch of tunnel scale gave an extra focus to that process.

"The floors have changed dramatically because of the regulation change,” says Egginton. "And the diffuser and the way the car works aerodynamically at the rear. Everyone was trying to recover load, and we recovered a reasonable chunk.

"Now we're trying to give the car a wider operating window aerodynamically to work in. Especially in low speed, and then the driver can exploit that, and we'll go quicker.

"I think we've got a good view on what the car is and then that allows you to say, what do you want to target? So, it is aero development, it is exploiting more performance from the areas of the car which had been affected by the regulation changes, and making sure that the changes, as we develop, we don't upset something else.

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"It's just rolling development. We'll have some new bits in Imola, we'll have some new bits in Portugal, we'll have some new bits in Spain. So it's incremental. There are no headline grabbers. But by Spain, we should have a nice step forward.”

Mention of the upcoming run of circuits highlights one of the issues that the team suffered from last year – inconsistency. The key goal is to maintain the Bahrain qualifying performance at a range of different venues.

"Last year, we were in that mix,” says Egginton. "But the variance in our performance across the midfield was a bit greater than we wanted. Some weekends we had the car working really well, other weekends we struggled a little bit.

"The second half of the year that variance reduced. There were certain things we did to try and do that. And then this year - again, it's a sample of one - it appears we're back in that mix, with a rookie driver as well.

"So it looks like whatever we're doing, it's allowing him to get into it quickly. We probably need to see the next couple of races, and then form a view, are we more consistent?

"I was happy with the pace of the car last year, but there were a couple of events where it performed really well, and a couple of events where we went home a bit sad.

"We want to try and minimise that and you've got to do it in the midfield, because it's so tight. Everyone’s stealing points off everyone, and you can't afford to drop points."

Gasly can be a reference for Tsunoda

The drivers are the final part of the equation, and it’s evident that AlphaTauri has put together an intriguing combination.

Apart from his half season with RBR in 2019 Gasly has been with the team since October 2017, again contributing to that priceless continuity. His confidence is sky high after last year, and instead of fretting about no longer being in the Red Bull, he’s thriving in his current environment.

"He is good because he's got the reference to last year,” says Egginton. "This year's car is an evolution of last year's car and he knows how last year's car performed, as do his engineering crew, and that helps Yuki if he's struggling with something. He has a reference.

"Pierre is able to tell us in detail what's changed, what's better, what's worse, so that's good. And then that combined with the correlation, it helps us potentially answer some of the questions Yuki might have.”

George Russell, Williams FW43B, and Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

George Russell, Williams FW43B, and Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Tsunoda meanwhile is bringing a buzz and excitement to the camp. The team knows it has someone who is determined to make his mark, and will go for it in all circumstances.

"He's on a very steep learning curve as any young driver is coming into the F1 world,” Egginton says of the rookie.

"He's taking it step-by-step. He's absorbing a lot of information. And he's communicating well, and we're understanding what he wants from the car. And he's working well with the engineering team.

"AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso has got a history of working with young drivers. And without being big-headed, the team's good at working with young drivers. I think it's fair to say that the record of the drivers that have been through the team highlights that the engineers are good.

"We're going to have ups and downs, but he's delivering, and I think that's important, because we're firmly in the midfield it appears. And he's got Pierre to learn from.”

The team is now preparing for its home race at Imola, a venue Tsunoda knows well from testing, and where Gasly qualified an impressive fourth just a few months ago. Will a second sample give a true indication of the AT02’s potential?

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