The Alpine snowball that led to ‘frantic, fraught weekend’
By Ian Parkes
Wednesday 3rd May, 2023 - 10:28pm
Alpine sporting director Alan Permane was unable to recall another weekend like it throughout his F1 career.
Permane has spent 24 years with the team throughout its various guises, and has been involved in its numerous highs and lows, but he has never experienced a nadir such as that across the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend.
For the team, it was an opportunity to erase the memory of what had unfolded in the dying stages of the previous race in Australia a few weeks previously.
On that occasion, at the second restart of a chaotic event in Melbourne’s Albert Park, and with a strong haul of points there for the taking, drivers Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon collided, with both impacting heavily into a concrete barrier.
It was a freak accident, with Carlos Sainz’s tagging of Fernando Alonso that sent the two-time F1 champion into a spin in his Aston Martin the catalyst as those behind attempted to navigate their way around the obstacle.
The intervening weeks in the build-up to the new sprint weekend format in Baku were frenetic as the team was forced into major rebuilds of the two cars, complete with the development of components of a new upgrade package.
Alpine also had to ensure it had numerous spares on hand given the concern – God forbid – of further impacts around a track that has become notorious over the years for its accident rate.
What it needed was a clean weekend, to steer clear of any trouble, primarily to evaluate its new package it hoped would provide a platform in which to build for the remainder of the season.
In nobody’s worst nightmare could such a weekend have materialised.
Alpine’s litany of problems
In the only practice session on Friday, Gasly’s car suffered a hydraulic leak which led to it catching fire. Ocon, meanwhile, remained in the garage for most of the session due to a gearbox fitting issue.
Despite the team changing the power unit and gearbox just in time to allow Gasly to take part in qualifying later that day, the Frenchman hit a wall in Q1, leading to him qualifying 19th.
On Saturday, during the sprint shootout, Gasly again endured grave misfortune, with his A523 encountering a suspected exhaust leak, curtailing his first session, and he again lined up 19th.
As for Ocon, the team was forced into making suspension changes. In doing so, by taking the car out of parc fermé, the resultant penalty saw him start the sprint and grand prix from the pit lane.
An incident shy grand prix, in contrast to the many in Baku beforehand, presented zero opportunities for Gasly and Ocon to make meaningful progress, leading to them finishing 14th and 15th.
Reflecting on a weekend from hell, Permane said: “I can’t compare it to any other, honestly.
“It’s been so frantic and fraught and difficult. It doesn’t feel like any other weekend.
“Overall, I didn’t think the new sprint weekend format was any different to last year, in that you need to start off well prepared, and just have a smooth weekend.
“We didn’t have that with either car in P1, and it snowballed out of control from there.”
Suggested to Permane it was simply ‘bad luck’, he replied: “I think you make your own luck with things like that, and honestly, we didn’t do a good enough job.
“We had a hose fail on one car which gave us a huge fire, and we had a problem with a build of the gearbox on the other car.
“Pierre did one or two timed laps in P1, and Esteban did two, or maybe three, and from there, you go into qualifying.
“Pierre then obviously had an accident, which was unfortunate, but Esteban did a really incredible job in quali to qualify 12th with the car he had.”
Ocon car could have been declared illegal
Ultimately, Alpine opted to make the suspension changes to Ocon’s car, leading to the double penalty under the new rules surrounding the sprint weekend format, and double pitlane start.
Explaining the thinking behind the team’s decision, Permane added: “We were very concerned with the plank wear on Esteban’s car because we’d only had such a short period of time.
“And at the end of the full qualifying session, it was looking tough.
“We took the very difficult decision to do that (make changes) because we were very worried about the car being illegal at the end of the race, or even before the end of the race, honestly.
“And that is a direct consequence of what happened in P1,”
As such, and given the circumstances that unfolded during the sole practice session, Alpine was constantly on the back foot from which it never recovered.
“Melbourne was probably where our car is,” assessed Permane. “We were decent there.
“Saudi (Arabia) was okay. We weren’t quite as quick as those guys in front, but we weren’t a million miles away from them, but in Baku we were nowhere compared to them.
“We really struggled, and that is a function of our Friday.
“It shows, it really shows, you have to be on your game. We cannot allow ourselves to have a Friday like we had, especially on a weekend like that.
“You can just about get away with it on a normal weekend, but even then you’re still losing valuable preparation time, and you’re still then one session behind all the time.
“Every time you run the car, you find something, you improve it, but we couldn’t do that.
“We must ensure that we never have a Friday like that again.”
Silver lining for Alpine at least
From a weekend to forget, and through all the mayhem, there was at least one positive for Alpine in relation to its major update regarding the floor.
Asked if the team had managed to get any answers, with a chuckle, Permane said: “Yes, we did get that, thankfully. It worked as performed.
“In fact, it over-performed a little bit, so that’s a positive to take away from the weekend.
“Again, it looks very much like we’re going to continue that trend of just being able to put things on the car without really having to test them too much, which is such a huge benefit, and something that we grew in confidence with last year.
“As more and more things come through, and we’ve got something in Miami we’ve got something else in Imola, but there’s definitely another tenth (of a second) coming, and then another tenth or so.
“So there’s good stuff coming in the pipeline, and having that confidence it’ll work the first time is great.”
The Miami GP weekend starts on Friday with first practice at 14.30 local time (04.30 AEST; 19.30 BST).
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