Aston Martin is ahead of schedule. The team has never hidden its ambition, with owner Lawrence Stroll recently stating the objective is to become “one of the greatest Formula 1 teams there will be,” but in season three of a five-year plan to emerge as a front-runner it has, based on the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, the second-best car in F1.
Realistically, it’s going to struggle to stay in second place given the Ferrari did look quicker on a weekend where its performance was contained by tire degradation troubles. That proved to be one of the many strengths of the Aston Martin AMR23 in Bahrain, allowing Fernando Alonso to climb from seventh after a difficult first lap to third.
Although Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari power unit letting him down promoted Alonso to the podium, had the Spaniard not lost ground early one — partly thanks to a clout from teammate Lance Stroll at Turn 4 — there’s every chance he could have taken that position on merit. It will require more races to judge Aston Martin’s true performance given the abrasive Bahrain surface means race pace is dramatically contained and even qualifying pace is more compromised than usual in terms of setup. But what is clear is that it has broken free of the midfield and joined the lead group.
Vast resources have been poured into Aston Martin since a consortium led by Stroll Sr. bought the Force India team after it fell into administration in the summer of 2018. While a “new” entrant for paperwork reasons, it’s exactly the same team that consistently produced giant-killing feats in both its Jordan and Force India guises. After an interregnum as Racing Point, during which Sergio Perez won the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix driving the infamous “Pink Mercedes,” largely a clone — and a legal one — of the previous-year’s title-winning car, it became Aston Martin in 2021.
Results were patchy in the first two years of Aston Martin, which is broadly in keeping with the history of the marque in F1. Its short-lived works team in 1959-60 achieved little with a car, the DBR4, that could have been competitive were it raced when first built in 1957 but that was a front-engined relic when it finally debuted. Sebastian Vettel took a podium finish in Baku in ’21, but last season was a difficult one after getting the initial car concept wrong. But there were signs of what the team was capable of as it surged to the brink of recovering to sixth place in the constructors’ championship after major car revisions.
During recent years, the team has grown from 400 to over 700 and recruited high-quality personnel from every corner of the F1 paddock. That includes technical director Dan Fallows, who worked under Adrian Newey in key aero roles at Red Bull previously, and his deputy Eric Blandin, formerly Mercedes head of aero. This increased the team’s performance potential significantly, so why is it a surprise it has become so good, so soon?
It’s partly because the team still occupies the bursting-at-the-seams Silverstone facility that Jordan established back in 1992. That is being corrected with a purpose-built factory close to completion adjacent to it that the team is due to move into in May. It’s touted as F1’s first “smart factory” and “a game changer” and has been optimized around the team size and structure permitted by F1’s cost cap. The main building is one of three being constructed, but the one containing the new state-of-the-art wind tunnel is still a work in progress. That will be operational next year.
Even though Aston Martin currently shares the Mercedes wind tunnel, along with the same power unit, gearbox, rear suspension and hydraulics, all of this puts a ceiling on its ultimate potential. Aston Martin is still a team evolving, but what is most remarkable is that it appears to have retained its historical knack for overachieving even while growing. The ability to fuse that greater resource in terms of people and budget with that tendency is one of the reasons Fallows cites for expectations being high internally heading into this season.
“I’m fortunate enough to have relatively recent experience of a top team and how that operates,” said Fallows during the Bahrain GP weekend. “But it’s sometimes very difficult for the midfield teams to compete on every level that the top teams have, particularly in things like facilities and tools.
“So it is incredibly important to try to focus on the strengths that you have and try to make the differences where those are. In the case of Aston Martin, I think (that’s) the people that have been there for quite a long time, but (also) the team that’s developed over that is a big strength of ours.
“We’ve got an incredibly talented and passionate team around us that has shown over the previous years that it can punch above its weight. So we need to lean on that. That’s something that we can hopefully stand out with.”
By producing such a strong car, Aston Martin has shattered perceptions of what a midfield team can achieve. In recent times, the chasm between the “big three” teams and the rest appeared to have become ossified. While measures such as the cost cap, aerodynamic testing regulations that give more wind tunnel and CFD time to lower-ranked teams and the more equitable distribution of the share of F1’s revenue split between the teams have made a difference, this was felt to be a slow-burn in terms of impact.
Aston Martin is one of a strong group of midfield teams of recent times that is aspiring to get to the front, but its timescale seems to be different. Alpine is satisfied still to be at the front of the midfield group this year, while McLaren has always talked of waiting for its new wind tunnel coming online and having time to make an impact, along with other major infrastructure upgrades, before it can hope to thrust forward. Alfa Romeo, too, is one of these teams but one coming from the lowest base and in the process of transitioning into being the works Audi team.
So how has Aston Martin achieved this? Well, it hasn’t done it simply by copying Red Bull. There have been plenty of jibes about it producing a “green Red Bull,” with Sergio Perez joking there were three Red Bulls on the podium in Bahrain. It’s true that the car is very much similar to last year’s Red Bull concept, and therefore this year’s evolutionary version, but that’s true of many cars on the F1 grid. But it’s not a direct attempt to recreate a rival’s car, as the 2020 Racing Point was. A glance at the detail of the car shows plenty of differences. The idea Fallows turned up with a Red Bull design in his head and has made Aston Martin build it is a fatuous one.
One advantage Aston Martin does have is that it uses the full Mercedes rear end. This comes at a price, not only in terms of design opportunity (your rear suspension geometry is fixed by another team) but also the cost. That’s not just what Aston Martin actually pays Mercedes but also the high notional value under the cost cap. Fallows has been equivocal on this, but there’s little doubt Aston Martin will eventually switch to produce its own such parts down the line simply because it is more efficient cost-cap and freer-design wise. McLaren and Alpine already do this, while Alfa Romeo uses Ferrari gearbox internals but designs its own casing primarily for cost cap reasons.
But that’s not enough to explain the difference in performance as it’s absurd to suppose when Aston Martin does eventually make its own gearbox and rear suspension that it will flatline performance wise. That hints that this is a team that, even when crammed into an obsolete factory, is working very well in terms of its design and development programs.
Under the most restrictive set of regulations in F1 history, the key to producing such a strong car is in understanding the key drivers of performance and where the potential is to maximize them. This is something Newey has always excelled at and is perhaps a trait Fallows shares thanks to his Red Bull years. It’s obvious that the underfloor is the key performance driver, but it’s the details around it — the floor fences, the way airflow is distributed between the venturi tunnels and the exterior of the car, the way this all interacts with the rest of the airflow regime of the car — that makes the difference. What Aston Martin has proved is that it has taken a leap in terms of understanding how to make the most of all of this.
However, there is one question mark that hangs over Aston Martin. The current car is the product of a melange of individuals who have come in from multiple teams. They can’t bring designs with them, but collectively they offer a vast amount of knowledge and ideas, meaning that you could argue the current Aston Martin is a Red Bull concept with the knowledge from other teams sprinkled over it. It will have to prove it can come up with such prolific ideas independently in future. But that’s something the team likely will achieve.
What it does show is that upwardly-mobile midfield teams can close on the deep knowledge built by the big-spending top squads over the past decade a little more quickly than they thought. And perhaps this is something that the team has taken wholesale from Red Bull, an ambition level that reflects not only the desire to match the biggest teams, but raise the bar for what is possible. That’s a key quality of genuine top F1 teams. Perhaps the most ominous warning came from Fallows late last year when he stressed the need to do things differently.
“The important thing for us is to make sure that we don’t just replicate what our competitors are doing,” said Fallows. “We don’t believe that’s going to help us overtake the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari. So we have to develop our own way of doing things. That does take time, but we’ve got a hugely ambitious group of people.”
The Aston Martin AMR23 perhaps best embodies this. Yes, it follows Red Bull’s direction but it’s the team’s own take on that with plenty of differences and, the team hopes, some hidden secrets that will open up development potential over the coming three seasons. There’s also the extra edge of a team that is hinting that it’s not about staying where it is after this strong start, but actually closing the gap on Red Bull. That’s an aggressive mindset, one that stands the team in good stead.
Prior to this year, Aston Martin has talked the talk and Stroll Sr. has put his money where his mouth is, not least with the recruitment of Alonso. But this year it’s walking the walk, for the first time proving that this is not just a team with the potential to change F1, but one that is now starting to show that it really can do so.