The Formula 1 team that was Aston Martin

Anyone who witnessed the 2020 Italian Grand Prix will always have a special place in their hearts for Pierre Gasly.

There was a distinctly emotional upside to the AlphaTauri rider’s day as he hunkered down to sit on the top step of the Monza podium to calm down and allow the magnitude of his achievement to sink in.

In the year that had passed since he lost both the opportunity of a lifetime at Red Bull and his good friend, Anthoine Hubert, to a horrific Formula 2 crash, Gasly had shown of courage and courage – and now he had the glory.

His victory was a defining moment for Formula 1, because after seven long years in which the top step of the podium had been reserved exclusively for Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari – the field had grown so large that some had long succumbed to the separation of the 20 cars. into three classes – the little ones beat the big ones.

A hero, even if only for a day, Gasly had shattered the glass ceiling and offered hope to others that if they too continued to believe and never gave up, their time could come too.

The Formula 1 forte was well and truly punctured that day as alongside Gasly on the podium stood two other unlikely guys – Carlos Sainz of McLaren and Lance Stroll of the soon to be renamed Aston Racing Point team. Martin – who despite the rare top three couldn’t help but look back angrily.

Sainz, having qualified third on merit at Monza, was convinced that one more lap would have been enough to get Gasly, but it was Stroll who gave himself the most trouble.

Gifted with a free tire change when red-flagged for Charles Leclerc’s crash at Parabolica, Stroll was second – behind Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, which had yet to serve a stop-start penalty – on the restart of a race that had suddenly become his to lose.

He lost it in an instant, excess wheels skidded off the start line seeing him rush through the first front chicane, in his desperation to make up for being too hard on the throttle he was too heavy on the brakes in the second, lock in and rush down the escape route.

P3 represented something of a recovery, but on an afternoon when gold was up for grabs, bronze – from the position he was in – was the bare minimum.

Their time would come soon enough – Sergio Perez winning the penultimate round of the season at Sakhir – but looking back, Monza 2020 was the day the team formerly known as Force India was replaced by AlphaTauri in as the best pound-for-pound team in F1.

Throughout the Force India years, the team was known for going a bit further, building the best car their relatively limited resources would allow, putting it in the hands of the two most talented drivers available and just racing around. .

This purity of mind and clarity of focus took them to back-to-back fourth places in the Constructors’ Championship in 2016 and 2017 – albeit an unholy position given McLaren’s and Renault’s pursuit issues – and meant that , for a while, if there was a surprise result to be had, they would invariably be the ones to grab it.

Stroll’s father Lawrence’s takeover of the team in 2018 was the F1 equivalent of winning the lottery, but if ownership by the Canadian entrepreneur offered a level of seriousness, funding and naked ambition never seen before at Silverstone, this came at the cost of their former identity and charm.

Even at Monza 2020 they weren’t, strictly speaking, one of the little guys anymore.

He was a small-big guy, a historically small team brimming with potential and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel – not long ago considered out of their league – set to sign and name change from Aston Martin in a few months.

The fastest way for a little guy to become one of the big guys? Imitation. By doing what the greats do.

It was the cheeky methodology behind the 2020 car, a copycat of Mercedes’ 2019 title winner, that changed perceptions of the team overnight and as a complete departure from their previous cars – which relied heavily on the high-level philosophy favored by Red Bull – was covered in the fingerprints of Stroll Sr.

The pink Mercedes had its moments, but it felt like the team was once so good at maximizing everything it had – forced to settle for fourth in the standings despite having the third-quickest car – n’ never fully exploited his true potential, Perez sorely missing the standard previously provided by Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon in the other car.

There were worrying signs that the team’s sixth sense had been blunted, not only in the way victory had eluded them in amateur fashion at Monza, but also two months later at Imola, where Perez was intrigued by the call to stand behind the P3 safety car. at Imola, dropping him to sixth at the finish.

The team that made that same safety car work for them, now those with a knack for making the right decision at the right time? AlphaTauri, the new Force India with an Italian flavor, with Daniil Kvyat ahead of Perez in a late push of soft tires to the P4.

If the 2021 floor changes were intended to reduce downforce to ease pressure on the Pirelli tyres, that they also had the effect of cutting Aston Martin at the knees, spoiling their second bonus season with the Mercedes clone, was a happy accident.

Vettel, hardly the most versatile driver even in his prime, clearly couldn’t drive the thing in the opening weeks of the season and it wasn’t until his fine fifth in Monaco – followed by a lucky P2 but executed well in Baku, where he was joined on the podium by Gasly – whom he finally started to make sense of in AMR21.

Another stark indication of what the team had lost, however, came on another one of those days when the supporting cast stole the stage in Hungary.

After tracking the Alpine in the lead from Ocon throughout the first stint, Vettel’s winning shot ended in a now-or-never clearance attempt on lap 36 of 70.

A standard save combined with Vettel’s passing pace – still one of his great strengths – would have been enough to snatch victory from Ocon, but a slow change at left-back saw the opportunity miserably wasted.

And, it later transpired, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, with Vettel disqualified from P2 within hours of the race for a fuel infraction.

As Aston’s season faded, attention turned to the future as the team made a series of major hirings and began construction on a new factory.

Former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, Red Bull head of aerodynamics Dan Fallows and aerodynamicist Andrew Alessi, Alfa Romeo chief designer Luca Furbatto and Mercedes chief aerodynamicist Eric Blandin were signed in 2021 and all will have key roles to play in the years to come.

They were followed last Friday by the appointment of BMW Motorsport boss Mike Krack as team principal to replace Otmar Szafnauer, whose departure after months of speculation in early January represented the surgical removal of one of the last strands remnants of the team’s old DNA, that sacred Force India fiber.

The arrival of Krack, a versatile leader with technical and political expertise, will be seen by some as the latest example of Aston Martin following another rival’s successful plan given Andreas Seidl’s transformational impact at McLaren since signing from another major German manufacturer. , Porsche, in 2019.

“This team has always punched above its weight; now he has the clout to hit harder,” Szafnauer said in the press release announcing Alessi’s signing in July last year.

Stroll’s level of commitment and investment suggests they will almost certainly pack a punch in the near future, but it will take time for their strength to build and for Aston Martin’s strength to be fully felt.

Currently, at least on track, they form a team caught between eras, in the midst of a delicate transition phase and plagued by sometimes severe growth difficulties in the search for a new identity.

And as they continue to work out where they want to go and how they’ll get there, Aston Martin need only take a look through the pit lane at AlphaTauri – a thriving David in a world of Goliaths budding – to see the team they used to be.

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