MPH: does Alonso's Portimão performance indicate progress?


It's been patchy at best for Fernando Alonso so far, but does a storming drive at Portimão show his and Alpine's true potential?

Fernando Alonso Portugal

Did Portimão really represent an upturn in performance for Alonso?

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Fernando Alonso made an impressive charge up to eighth place last weekend in Portugal, overtaking car after car in the late stages, including Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren, and lapping very quickly. But it came after his second consecutive mediocre qualifying performance and he arrives at his home track this weekend at a critical juncture of his comeback campaign.

So far it’s been a little patchy, for a couple of reasons. One is that the Alpine has not been as competitive as expected for a team that was taking podiums on merit at the end of last year. The other is Alonso’s own adaptation to F1 after two years away.

On the plus side he got the car into Q3 in Bahrain for the opening round, which was perhaps more than it deserved at that point. But we had lost the reference to team-mate Esteban Ocon there as the latter was trapped in Q1 by encountering yellow flags on his crucial lap. Generally, in the very small sample we have so far, Ocon has handily out-performed Alonso.

The inference is that Alonso is not even on the level of a team-mate who was soundly beaten last year by Daniel Ricciardo. But we should be careful with that reasoning. The very struggle of familiarisation Alonso is currently struggling with is exactly the process Ocon was going through last year after an enforced sabbatical.

Fernando Alonso Portugal

It was another poor qualifying for the Spaniard in Portugal, but a trademark storming drive through the field come Sunday

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So was Alonso’s strong showing last Sunday representative of some sort of breakthrough, or simply the function of him being on the perfect tyre strategy, with fresher tyres than those he was racing against in the late stages, a strategy he was only able to be on thanks to failing to qualify for Q3?

The Alpine itself looked way better in Portimão than in the opening two races, with Ocon qualifying it sixth, right in there with McLaren and Ferrari. It featured a new diffuser and maybe the aero upgrade around that was the difference. Because aerodynamically, the team had suffered a bad preparation into the season, as team executive director Marcin Budkowski recently explained:

“We had issues with the wind tunnel issues in the wind tunnel” Marcin Budkowski

“We had issues with the wind tunnel issues in the wind tunnel. We had issues related to the actual changed regulations and the various flow features that it induced on the car, and we had issues with hardware of the tunnel itself,” he said.

“The consequence is not that we lost more performance than others or lost differently, it’s just that we lost time, development time which is a valuable currency in Formula 1 because everybody has the same amount of testing they can do, it’s limited by regulation, so when you are trying to stabilise your aerodynamic flow features or you’re trying to get your tunnel to give you the right numbers the others, during this time, continue developing the car and put performance on it.

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“We lost a few weeks of development and that just transformed into tenths of seconds… We’ve solved our issues so we continue to invest and improve our wind tunnel and fingers crossed, we don’t get issues again next year but certainly it’s up to us to improve our understanding and our development capabilities.”

As for Alonso’s own personal performance, he puts it at, “five out 10 so far, the bare minimum required, but let’s take it one step at a time… I am at a point in my life where I feel good and I feel capable of driving better than ever but that doesn’t mean you don’t find difficulties while entering a new adventure. I was the first to admit I was not 100% in Imola and not comfortable and probably under-performing but it was one race.

“At the end of the year we talk. If I under-perform the whole season and everything was more difficult than I expected, maybe there is a point to really discuss and go deep into the questions of why it is more difficult than previously.”

Budkowski: “In Bahrain, he was right on it straight away and he put the car in Q3 and everybody hailed Fernando’s return and then Imola, it went a bit less smoothly and suddenly everybody is questioning his return. It’s typical Formula 1 and you are only as good as your last race. Fernando was extremely honest. He raised his hand after qualifying in Imola and said: ‘Look, the few tenths that are missing, I’m the one who needs to find them.’

Alonso Portugal Alpine

Will a home race bring more joy?

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“People forget that these cars are extremely quick, they’re very, very difficult to push to the limit and we are seeing that with drivers that have changed teams over the winter and are struggling a little bit compared to their team-mate. Fernando has been out of it for two years. He’s done a day and a half of testing in Bahrain and straight into racing. But with his experience, his talent and his determination, I have absolutely no doubt he will get back there.”

So the questions – around both car and driver – are hanging in the warm Barcelona air this weekend. Portimão, with its gripless surface and gusty winds, is an unusual track. Barcelona is a much more typical and aerodynamically demanding track. As Alonso himself says, “There was a good level of competitiveness apart from in qualifying for me. Now at Barcelona we need to see if it was a track-specific performance or if it was the truth of the Alpine evolution.”

But regardless of the level of the car, Alonso really needs to be putting together an Ocon-competitive level of performance in qualifying to assuage the doubts. Because there are still doubts there, probably in his own mind as well as ours. My own hunch is that he will overcome them.