F1 fans should pay attention to Fernando Alonso cooling Aston Martin expectations

Thomas Maher
Fernando Alonso drives the Aston Martin AMR23, side on view. Bahrain February 2023

Double World Champion Fernando Alonso drives the Aston Martin AMR23, side on view. Bahrain February 2023

Despite Aston Martin’s remarkable pre-season form and practice pace, Fernando Alonso’s cautious optimism should be the attitude fans latch onto.

The current hype surrounding Aston Martin has escalated dramatically in the past few weeks, having initially begun with whispers from other teams about the mooted performance levels of the Dan Fallows-led AMR23.

Having signed the former Red Bull lead aerodynamicist Dan Fallows and having had to battle his former employer to get Fallows set up within the team, the ‘B-spec’ version of the AMR22 introduced shortly afterward represented a huge step forward after a disappointing start last year.

With Fallows now fully integrated, it’s clear that the AMR23 has taken inspiration from Red Bull’s design philosophy – a thoroughly unsurprising outcome given how closely Fallows worked with Adrian Newey on the initial concept for the RB18.

With Lawrence Stroll’s funding at Aston Martin allowing for a rapid expansion of the team’s resources and the commissioning of a new state-of-the-art factory which Fallows confirmed will see operations begin later this year, the former Jordan/Force India/Racing Point squad are the team with perhaps the most upward mobility of all the current 10.

Certainly, having spent the test showing quietly impressive pace, Aston Martin do seem to have hit the ground running for the season opener – Fernando Alonso finished as quickest of all at the end of Friday’s running with a 1:30.907 to finish a tenth clear of the Red Bulls, and was able to respond to Verstappen’s third practice pace to claim quickest time again by just 0.005 seconds.

Aston Martin ‘largely hit’ performance targets set over winter

Speculation has run rampant this weekend – could Aston Martin actually be clear of the likes of Ferrari or engine/gearbox supplier Mercedes, and might Alonso and Stroll have a car good enough to challenge for pole positions, wins, and even the title?

“We are pleased with the car. We targeted making a big step on last year’s car,” said Fallows on Friday.

The AMR22 ended last season comparable to the likes of Alpine and McLaren, who battled over fourth place overall, so how big a step up have Aston been able to make in terms of their comparative performance?

“In terms of the performance relative to that, we’re definitely happy that we have made a step forwards,” he continued.

“And we set some fairly aggressive targets for ourselves. And we did sort of largely hit those. We came out of testing believing that we did have a car that we could work with but where we sit relative to other people, I know you’d love me to give you a prediction, but I’m afraid we just simply don’t know.

“We have a huge amount of respect for the competitors around us, and it obviously depends a vast amount on what they’ve done. The thing we can do is to focus on our own performance. The fact that we have made a step on last year’s car is gratifying, certainly.”

Aston Martin’s clear step up has caught the attention of rival team bosses, too, with Red Bull’s Christian Horner highlighting their performance on Friday.

“Their car looks great. And, you know, they had some really impressive race runs last week,” he told media, including PlanetF1.com – a sentiment echoed by Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur.

“I don’t know what [Fernando’s] taking but he’s looking great on it,” Horner remarked. He looks on fire, so I think they could be a real surprise this year. Bit of a dark horse so yeah, it just shows that it is possible to take a jump from the mid-field to potentially further up. But, of course, we’ve only had a small snapshot. Let’s see the long runs this afternoon and then qualifying, and then the first sample in the race on Sunday.”

Fernando Alonso moves to cool expectations

Lance Stroll, getting into the cockpit of the AMR23 for his first meaningful track time of 2023 after his cycling accident and wrist injury, finished in sixth place in FP2, and seventh in FP3, to underline what is clearly a car performing well to start the season.

Is it any wonder that, given the disappointment of missing testing, Stroll showed some rare exuberation as he spoke to media afterward – revealing his thoughts on an unthinkable Aston Martin front row: “That would be awesome! We’ll try.”

But Alonso, the more seasoned veteran of two World Championships and umpteen years of disappointment, was far more pragmatic as he spoke to the media after his quickest time on Friday.

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After all, the Spaniard is well used to being involved at the sharp end of the grid, and fully aware of the performance jumps teams like Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes are fully capable of delivering when crunch time arrives in qualifying and over a race distance.

Asked about whether pole position is a possibility on Saturday evening in Bahrain, Alonso refused to get carried away.

“No, not at all, I’m not thinking that high to be honest,” he said. “Actually, I don’t know exactly what position will be a good one for us.

“After testing, we were thinking to be in Q3 with both cars, score as many points as possible in these first couple of races, try not to make mistakes. It’s very easy to make a mistake, it’s not the same fighting for P12, P14 than fighting for top five positions because the pressure is different, the adrenaline is different.”

Why Alonso is eager to ‘keep feet on the ground’

As Ferrari proved on multiple occasions last season, speed is just one string in a team’s bow and, while the AMR23 may prove quick, Aston Martin are not a team accustomed to performing in the spotlight at the head of the field – Alonso acknowledging this fact as he admitted to expecting mistakes from a team that has gone through so much change over the past two or three years.

“There are a lot of things that we as a team, we have to grow together in this process, so I suspect that we will unfortunately make some mistakes,” he said.

“I make maybe some mistakes, it’s a completely new team, new procedures, the team as well, so we have to be with the feet on the ground. The target has to be fighting for the championship but you know, in a long term, I don’t think in this year yet.”

As well as addressing the media and the fans, it’s clear Alonso is also sending a message to his team, to “keep the feet on the ground”. While showing a remarkable amount of promise, Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes are the established big dogs in terms of car performance as well as operational sharpness (even if Ferrari were wobbly on that front in ’22).

Conversations with team personnel reveal a similar level of cautious optimism – excitement at the possibility of being a much more competitive outfit this season, but refusing to get carried away by the notion of actually being able to beat the establishment in such a remarkably short level of time.

Should Alonso or Stroll fail to get pole position in Bahrain on Saturday, will Aston Martin feel disappointed? Perhaps a modicum of such but, moreso, even making it into Q3 with both cars would mark a huge step forward for the Silverstone-based squad as the endless potential of a long 2023 season hoves into view.

Traditionally, throughout their various guises in recent years, the team have proven adept at developing and understanding their car. Under Fallows’ burgeoning leadership as he assumes full control of their technical department, there’s no reason to think Aston Martin can’t make the leap forward and join in the fight at the very front – but perhaps not in the immediate short-term.

Having finished seventh in the Constructors’ Championship just three months ago and having seen the apparent step backwards taken by McLaren, can Aston Martin really have turned things around to the extent of leapfrogging three or four very clever and well-resourced teams – without a so-called ‘silver bullet’ of aerodynamic magic that has somehow eluded everyone else, it seems unlikely.

In a bid to cool expectations, Fallows himself also pointed out that Bahrain is also not the most representative of tracks and that one swallow does not a summer make.

“Bahrain is a particular type of circuit,” he said.

“We’ve got Jeddah and Australia and other tracks coming up which may be very different for these cars. So even though the relative competitive order in the first race doesn’t necessarily say what’s going to happen over the next few races either.”