Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturdays: What’s Eating Alpine?

The BWT Alpine F1 Team’s start to the 2024 Formula 1 season has been weird. Just weird.

We’ve talked about two of the other backmarkers on the grid this year, Haas and Williams, already, but sitting even lower than those two in the standings – last, in fact – is the French outfit with the all-French driver lineup.

Three races into the season, the team has netted a best finish of 13th, twice, achieved first by Esteban Ocon in Saudi Arabia and then by Pierre Gasly in Australia. That is the team’s worst start to a season in its short history since moving away from the Renault name in 2021, though even under Renault branding, the results never started off this poorly from 2016-2020 either.

In Bahrain, Alpine locked out the last row of the grid, though not egregiously off the pace when compared to other drivers eliminated in Q1 such as Logan Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu. Finishes of 17th and 18th followed, but coming soon after the race came worse news that the team’s technical director and head of aerodynamics had both handed in their resignations a month prior.

Fortunes didn’t improve through the second and third rounds of the season, but the team has yet to start panicking. To some extent or another, in fact, they seem to have seen this coming.

Alpine’s 2024 entry, the A524, was unveiled as a complete revamp of the team’s previous cars, a fresh start of sorts. From the beginning, the team refused to commit to any numerical targets in terms of pace or results and instead chose to stick close to the point that progress is rarely linear. In layman’s terms, “we’ll be fast when we’re fast.”

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Before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, after the team’s performance in Bahrain had put their state of affairs on full display, Gasly told Motorsport that although the team was working just as hard as the rest of the grid, consistent points wouldn’t be on the table in the near future.

In Australia, Gasly finished 13th ahead of Ocon in 16th, the last car running. Fortunately, this performance was overshadowed by the spectacular nature of the weekend spread between Carlos Sainz taking a shock win on his return from a medical absence to George Russell‘s nasty crash and near-rollover on the final lap.

Not to mention all the weird Williams witchcraft that unfolded throughout the weekend.

Now, coming into the Japanese Grand Prix at the legendary Suzuka Circuit, Alpine may finally be turning to face the same direction as the rest of the grid.

The A524 arrived in Suzuka with a new front wing and some tweaks to weight distribution, ultimately making the car lighter – a noble step in a sport contested in vehicles which resemble airplanes more than cars. According to Gasly, these upgrades have also come in on schedule, suggesting the team has things under control on the operations side behind the scenes.

Things may be looking up after Saturday’s (April 6) qualifying session. Ocon will start Sunday’s race in 15th, having made his second Q2 appearance of the season, while Gasly will line up 17th on the grid. The result meant the world to the former of the team’s two Frenchmen.

Still, Team Principal Bruno Farmin is cautious about optimism, rather than cautiously optimistic. Speaking to SB Nation earlier in the week, he stressed that the upgrades coming into play in Japan are “not major” and the team expects to focus on gaining a further understanding of their car and setup in the coming weeks rather than making immediate strides toward the midfield.

Alpine’s emergence as backmarkers for 2024 was certainly not foreshadowed by their performance through 2023, when they ended the season sixth in the Constructors’ Championship with 120 points to show for their efforts. Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer and Sporting Director Alan Permane did depart the team in less-than-ceremonious fashion following the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix, but the results didn’t show a notable dip in the aftermath.

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However, the grid is much tighter this year, and points will be much harder to come by if the current pecking order is maintained up and down the grid. After three rounds in 2023, every team had scored at least one point. Currently, Alpine, Williams, and KICK Sauber are pointless. However, to make matters more dire, Williams and Sauber have both knocked on the door of the points-paying positions by picking up 11th-place finishes in the season’s opening rounds. It will only take one or two convenient instances of attrition further up the grid for these two to leave Alpine all alone in last place among the constructors.

It’s time to get moving. The A524 may have been too ambitious an endeavor in innovation – it’s not a good sign for a team to still be working to “understand” their car at the opening round of the season, let alone three races in. Fortunately for Alpine, there’s nowhere to go but up.

If nothing else, whoever manages the team’s social media presence has remained in good spirits throughout this journey.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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