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How a lesson from Haas helped Aston Martin's surprise Brazil F1 turnaround

The prospect of Aston Martin filling the second row of the grid for the Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix seemed highly unlikely after dire weekends in the USA and Mexico.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C43, in the pit lane

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR23, Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C43, in the pit lane

Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Those events saw three out of four starts made from the pitlane as the team tried to learn more about the update package it debuted at Circuit of the Americas. And just to make life even tougher, Fernando Alonso was forced to retire from both races with floor damage.

And yet, just days after the Mexican disappointment, the team showed both pace and operational savvy at Interlagos as the green cars were beaten only by two men who have between them secured 15 of this season’s 20 pole positions. Lance Stroll took his best grid position of the year in third, while Alonso will start Sunday's Grand Prix alongside him in fourth.

There’s still a long way to go this weekend, but Friday afternoon was a huge fillip for an organisation that has been in the spotlight recently.

“We needed it,” said Alonso after the session. “I think the last two Grands Prix we were a little bit experimental. And we were starting from the pitlane, all this kind of thing.

“So we needed a nice result here in Brazil, for both cars, to give us some hope in the team, and just proof that we understood a few things, and we are quite competitive. So this proves that we know what we're doing, and I'm happy with that.”

Team boss Mike Krack promised after the Mexican race that Aston would rely on the data to determine what it would run this weekend in Brazil, and not necessarily push on with the complete new package come what may just to prove a point. The engineers decided what would work best for the specific challenges of Interlagos, combining elements of old and new.

There were encouraging signs when Stroll was sixth in FP1. As ever you can never be sure what everyone is doing in practice, but come qualifying that performance was backed up.

The second row lockout was a welcome reprieve for Aston after a tough start to F1's final triple-header of 2023

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The second row lockout was a welcome reprieve for Aston after a tough start to F1's final triple-header of 2023

Stroll and Alonso were sixth and seventh in the normal conditions of Q1, and then with rain threatening but the track still dry the Spaniard was as high as fourth in Q2, while his team-mate just scraped through in 10th. However Aston felt that only Red Bull and McLaren had quicker cars.

Then come Q3 it was all about timing and making the best of it as the rain began to spit. The Silverstone team and its drivers got it just right.

"It's a good result today, I think we can all be really happy about what we have achieved,” Krack told Autosport after the session.

“Today, we have to really file everything under teamwork. From the analysis that went on, from the selection of which package we bring here, the execution, the driving, then also being there at the end.”

"The margins are so tight around here,” said performance director Tom McCullough. “But the team put the best car we have out on the track with everything we've learned in recent events. And they executed every single session. The execution, I was really impressed by, to be honest.”

The key to Q3 was getting both cars down to the pit exit before anyone else in order to get a lap in as soon as possible. While in retrospect that might seem like a no-brainer, others preferred to go out a little later, calculating that they would hit just the right window before the deluge came. Going out later would also avoid the problem of losing tyre temperature while waiting at the end of the pitlane for the light to go green.

Inspired by what Kevin Magnussen did with Haas last year, when he was first out of the pits and secured pole in changeable conditions, the strategy proved to be the correct one for Aston despite the tyre temperature concerns.

For McCullough, who was Nico Hulkenberg’s engineer at Williams when the German snared pole at Interlagos on a drying track in 2010, the strategy was clear.

Making it out of the pits first had been key for Magnussen in 2022

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Making it out of the pits first had been key for Magnussen in 2022

“Obviously, having the first two cars in Q3 gives you the best chance to get the lap in before the rain,” he said. “The conditions were difficult. And by doing that the tyre temps aren't right either. But you can’t get everything.

“We also got traffic on the lap because some of the guys who were later out were getting in the way a bit as well. But hey, second row of the grid, third and fourth, a fantastic result.

"It's like in 2010 when Nico got the pole. You don't know what the weather is going to do here. So get yourself out.

“We saw it with Kevin last year, take yourself out in front and the rain comes quicker than you then the radar's telling you, just get the lap on the board.

“We were quite disappointed with the laps, they weren't great, the drivers were struggling. But it's a relative game, isn't it? A load of people behind were spinning off on the grass, and then the rain came. So fantastic, really.”

Krack agreed that Magnussen’s 2022 pole charge was a good example of what to do when dark clouds are coming in in Brazil.

“We have learned some lessons last year, with Kevin, you have to be the first one with the weather menacing like that,” he said.

“It is true, you lose tyre temperature. But if you are a little bit ahead of the rain, and someone else is catching the rain, that is a much, much bigger affect that the tyre temperatures.

“So that is a choice you have to make. The work on the pit wall was really world class today. And then the drivers executed fantastically well, but also in the garage, it was really, really strong.

In worsening light as the storm blew in, Stroll snared his best grid slot of the year

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

In worsening light as the storm blew in, Stroll snared his best grid slot of the year

“And I think then also the drivers had to execute it, and they did it very well. So I think it's a great relief to be in better positions than we have been recently.”

So what spec of AMR23 did the team end up running?

“This configuration has not run before,” said Krack. “It is a mix. I keep saying the cars are very complicated, very complex, and you need to try and understand that.

“Credit to everybody, in the factory and here, how hard everybody has worked over the last weeks, to define all that, but also define a direction for next year. So I think this is a reward for everybody.”

We tend to get excited about the instant impact of updates, negative or positive, and inevitably the impression the world got is that Aston missed its targets with the Austin package. However, it’s not always that straightforward.

“To be honest 21 races in, we've never run the same package race-to-race,” said McCollough, counting the cancelled Imola event. “We've got a combination of parts that suit this track the best. And that's a lot of parts on the car. From the on-track learning, understanding the car, we've just tried to go as fast as we can do.

"The whole car is and mix and match, which is what you do anyway during the year. Underneath is where the trick bits are on these F1 cars, and it's the details, the small things that people don't notice. It’s a combination of a lot of bits, and overall, in today's conditions at this track, it was really good.

“The reality here is the margins are tight, but in the dry Fernando I think was only beaten by the Red Bull and the McLaren. So very, very tight margins as always around here. But what matters is the points.”

Can Stroll keep his Aston in the mix at the sharp end on Sunday?

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Can Stroll keep his Aston in the mix at the sharp end on Sunday?

For Stroll in particular Sunday has now become very important. It obviously won’t be easy for the Canadian to hang onto third – the McLarens have a lot of pace and the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz have quick cars – but he can go a long away to turning his season around.

“He did an excellent job,” said Krack. “I mean, there is nothing to say, he was there from FP1, he was happy with the car. And he brought it through in even in Q1. We wanted to go three times, based on what we had recently. And we didn't have to, so he aborted.

“And I think he was quite comfortable. I think we were really lucky to get into Q3 with both cars, because the margins are just extremely small. And then it was a great lap at the end.

“It was very difficult in the end with all the wind that had changed, with the weather coming, but I think all-in-all we can be happy, and I'm really happy for Lance.”

And then there’s Alonso, frustrated for the past few weeks, and now with a sniff of another podium, and a chance to bag points that could halt his slide down the championship order.

“I hope it's just a clean weekend, a good tomorrow, the sprint,” he said. “And then on Sunday, obviously we have a very good position to start the race. Maybe no more rain. It was only today, the biggest day, so hopefully tomorrow, a sunny day so people can enjoy it more.”

 

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