What Aston Martin got right to shake up F1’s order
Fernando Alonso’s charge to a podium in Formula 1’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix grabbed the attention of fans worldwide.
What made it stand out was the fact that Aston Martin’s top three finish pretty much came out of the blue for a team that had headed in to the winter quite under the radar.
Yet, over the course of a few months from finishing seventh in last year’s constructors’ championship, it has made a leap forward to produce arguably the second-fastest race car.
Such rapid progress is not the norm in F1, as teams well know it can be a hard slog to simply move up one or two positions per year.
That is why Aston Martin’s leap forward has caught the attention of many of its rivals too.
While they have to face up to someone else having done a better job, it has equally provided a good case study in the elements needed for success in F1.
Here then are the key factors that have helped Aston Martin deliver so well this year.
Rules and cost cap
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
The introduction of a cost cap in F1 was driven by two separate desires: a means of protecting teams from collapse due to out-of-control spending, and a way of helping close up the grid.
On the competitive front, the budget limit has served its purpose in holding back the top teams, as they have all had to trim back on staffing levels and the amount of cash they can fork out on car developments.
That has been especially good news for well-funded midfield teams like Aston Martin who, by operating near the cost cap limit, have had to sacrifice very little – and even be able to mould their organisations to better suit the new restrictions.
Technical director Dan Fallows says Aston Martin has been one of those squads in the sweet spot area.
“We’re in the relatively fortunate position of being able to build our team up as we get towards the cost cap,” he said earlier this year.
“We’ve been under that, so we’ve had an opportunity to look at how we would increase our spending.
“We’ve been in the position to grow relatively organically whilst staying under the cost cap.
“I think from our point of view, that is probably a benefit compared to a team that has started well over the cost cap and had to look at cutting back.”
Aston Martin Silverstone factory rendering
Photo by: Aston Martin Racing
While teams are all equal in terms of the spending they are allowed to make, they are not all the same when it comes to their facilities.
One of the explanations for why Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes remained so ahead of the opposition last year came down to infrastructure legacy: years of having better facilities and systems in place will continue to pay dividends for a while to come.
That is why teams with older wind tunnels and simulators, like McLaren, had to wake up to the fact that they cannot compete in the long term unless they get new infrastructure in place.
Aston Martin came to this same conclusion too, which is why its new factory, new sim and wind tunnel are all in the process of being finished off right now.
But equally it has done what it can in the short term to address shortcomings.
There has been huge investment at its Silverstone base for state-of-the-art equipment, and pulling off the deal many years ago to use the Mercedes wind tunnel has been essential for its progress.
After all, if a facility is good enough for a multiple championship winning team, then it has to be decent.
As Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer said: “The Mercedes wind tunnel is a very good one. I don't think you're penalised by sharing. If you were penalised by sharing, people wouldn't share.”
Fallows says for now the Mercedes option is good enough.
“We are very fortunate in using the Mercedes wind tunnel at the moment, but there are limitations to that,” he said.
“There’s no substitute to having your own, the flexibility of testing the way you want. There are simulation facilities and so on that are also going to come online.
“Does that stop us progressing in the way that we want? Absolutely not. But are they key for us as a sustained performance gains in the future? Absolutely, and that’s what we need to push for.”
The right staff
The Aston Martin garage
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
If there is one thing that has been obvious since Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll took charge at the team it is that he has made a push to chase the best of everything.
As well as investing heavily in facilities, he has also been super aggressive in making sure he has the right people in place to move the team forward.
That is why Stroll has left no stone unturned when it has come to attracting the very best people he can get on board – even if it has meant digging deep into his pockets and ruffling a few feathers at other teams.
As he said at his launch: "The passion comes from excitement. When I get excited about something I get very passionate, and when I get very passionate, I win!"
The end result is a number of high-profile captures including TD Fallows from Red Bull, deputy technical director Eric Blandin from Mercedes and former McLaren, Toro Rosso, Manor and Sauber man Luca Furbatto.
All of them have fantastic knowledge of exactly what effort and focus is needed to be successful at the very front of F1.
The right mindset
Photo by: Erik Junius
The right infrastructure and right staff ultimately mean nothing if the team does not have the right attitude.
And there is a clear sense within Aston Martin that it is ready to be a bit of a disruptor and do things its own way in the quest to win.
It has never been a team that has been wedded to convention; whether in taking customer parts (like the Mercedes gearbox and rear suspension it buys right now) or aggressively pursuing concepts that others have thought up first.
Some rivals have been locked in to the belief that the only way to win is to design and build every component yourself; but that’s not something Aston Martin is so convinced about.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been a handicap for us at all, having their parts,” explained Fallows about the use of Mercedes components.
“If anything, it’s been a big boost for us. They clearly do their own development. We have to be able to put our aerodynamic surfaces on their rear suspension as well, so it’s not entirely theirs from an aerodynamic point of view.”
Beyond that, there is also the willingness to be open to the potential that other teams have come up with better ideas than yourself.
When Aston Martin started 2022 with the wrong car concept, it wasted little time in changing approach and switching to the Red Bull solution from the Spanish Grand Prix.
And, with it pretty clear in F1 that Red Bull’s downwash design may be the best route for success in the ground effect era, Aston Martin has committed to it and added its own style too – rather than thinking it could come up with something better from scratch.
It was telling at the team launch earlier this year that Fallows spoke openly that one of tech genius Adrian Newey’s great strengths in F1 was not shutting himself off to other people’s ideas.
“I think one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed with him is that he lacks any kind of technical arrogance about him,” he said.
“He’s very open to being told about things that he’s stipulated or things that he’s suggested that they haven't worked or there are better ideas out there. And that almost irrespective of where those comments come from.
“I think that’s something I definitely try to bring into my own work. What I very much encourage a lot of the technical team to do is to be open minded. Even if you have very clear visions about how you want to develop things, or very clear ideas about the car, make sure you’re not technically arrogant about it.”
The Alonso factor
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 3rd position, lifts his trophy on the podium
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
One element that also cannot be ignored is the boost the team has taken from the signing of Fernando Alonso.
It was interesting to hear new Williams team boss James Vowles single out the impact of Alonso as his first explanation for the leap Aston Martin had made in 2023.
“I think they have an extraordinary driver who's in the car,” he said.
There are two critical factors that are important for teams when it comes to capitalising on the gains to be had from signing one of the grid’s undisputed best.
First, there is the automatic lap time benefit that comes out on track, as the two-time world champion should be able to deliver a few tenths of a second just from taking the car to the limit.
Then beyond that there is the belief and motivation that having someone like Alonso on board can produce for the organisation itself.
Staff will be willing to go that extra mile, and dig just that little bit deeper, knowing that there is the prospect of ever greater rewards on track now.
It is clear that there is not one silver bullet that has been key for Aston Martin making the leap it has.
Instead, it is a combination of easily explainable factors that have come together to help it fast track momentum towards the front of the grid.
And, as Alonso quite rightly pointed out after Bahrain, there is nothing the team has done that rivals could not have pursued themselves.
“I think you need to have the vision and the ambition of Lawrence Stroll, or our leadership and our management because the opportunities are there for everybody,” he said.
“But it seems that only one team is willing to do whatever it takes to win. And I'm proud to be part of this organisation.”
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