Fernando Alonso’s career history is often used against him, and perhaps it’s unfair that I’m bringing it up once again, but it’s with good reason.
After leaving Renault as a two-time world champion at the end of 2006, Alonso looked to have it made as he joined a McLaren team that could have given him many more title chances, but he only stayed for one season before returning to Renault.
Then Ferrari should’ve been a match made in heaven but again it didn’t click, and Alonso headed back to McLaren in 2015 in the hope that Honda would deliver a chance of taking the fight to Mercedes, such was the dominance of the Silver Arrows in the V6 turbo hybrid era.
As spectacular a failure as that venture was, it’s not as if Ferrari fought for any titles in what was remaining of Alonso’s original contract either. His return to Alpine in 2021 at least allowed him to race in a highly competitive midfield for two seasons, and even gave him the occasional chance to put himself on the front row.
But a properly front-running car has been out of reach. And don’t get too excited if you’ve read this far, because it still is. The Red Bull emerged from pre-season testing as the class of the field by some distance, and there will need to have been some epic levels of sandbagging for a rival team to pose a significant threat on Sunday.
Aston Martin can certainly put itself in the frame as a rival team now though, after impressing other outfits up and down the pit lane across the three-day test.
In some ways, it shouldn’t come as surprise, because the resources available are remarkable. Lawrence Stroll’s team could attract major talent from other setups, both through the huge pay packets and also the promise of what is to come in future as the first building of a new factory is nearing completion.
That milestone should be achieved in the next couple of months, but there’s two more buildings to be finalized as part of the new Aston Martin campus, and for now it has largely been working out of the old Jordan/Midland/Spyker/Force India/Racing Point factory at Silverstone, with temporary cabins adding office space.
The facilities are not yet in place, and when they are it still takes time for a car to be developed, so we’re years away from seeing their true impact. Yet Aston looks to have made the biggest leap forward of all teams over the winter.
As the final day of pre-season testing unfolded, multiple team members started to suggest Aston Martin could be troubling Mercedes for the third-best car on the grid. Then Mercedes had an encouraging end to the test and there was a little less confidence in those predictions, but the counterargument tended to be from even more enthusiastic observers who insist the Aston could even be second to Red Bull.
Of course, this is all being written with the usual caveats in terms of not knowing fuel loads and engine modes, but the long run pace was particularly eye-catching when the AMR23 was on track. And this is a car that is 95% new.
The early part of last season was a major disappointment, but Aston had one of the best development rates on the grid and ended the year regularly fighting for best of the rest in the midfield. That didn’t negate the fact that its initial car failed to meet expectations though, so the 2023 design is almost a complete overhaul that provides a better baseline for the future, too.
That means it actually shouldn’t be showing all of its potential at this point, but taking longer to understand and hone and improve, as the team has a lot more to learn compared to some others who are working with more evolutionary cars.
By Sunday evening, there could be multiple different aspects to the Aston Martin picture, but almost all of them should be encouraging for Alonso. As last year showed, results in Bahrain don’t define the whole season, but with a whole year’s knowledge of the new regulations under everyone’s belts the rate of development during the year might be slightly more limited.
If Aston has moved to the front of the midfield then it has made a very impressive step over the past few months that shows it has the personnel in place to deliver bigger results in the coming years. That’s exactly what Alonso thought he was getting, and he hoped to be racing long enough to see the team move into an even more competitive position.
But if the top three has now become a top four (or three behind Red Bull), then Aston is already far ahead of even Alonso’s timeline, and likely to be a force to be reckoned with in the near future as its facilities catch up with the car and people building it.
Alonso’s move to Aston last summer came as a surprise on many fronts, partly because of how quickly it appeared to come together, and then it was overshadowed by the Oscar Piastri saga it triggered. But even if none of the above proves to be true and Aston is still mired in the midfield, the very fact that the team is being talked up in the way it is shows its potential.
As unexpected as it may be, a huge step from Aston isn’t completely inconceivable given the investments that have been made. Whereas if we were digging through the Alpine data — a team that has also had an encouraging pre-season — then it would just be that little bit harder to believe it could move so far forward so quickly.
That’s exactly why Alonso made the move from Alpine. The likelihood was that both teams would be somewhere near each other, but one had the potential to do something a little bit special and give him a chance of fighting with bigger teams before his time in F1 is up. Mike Krack’s team might just have done it, but even if it hasn’t, it was worth the gamble.