In the first of a series of regular columns Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer looks back at the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian GPs and considers the impact of Drive to Survive on the sport.
At the start of the season at the Bahrain test we were really focussed on learning as much as we could about the A523, not just for the upcoming race at Sakhir, but also for other events in the short-term.
Because of that we didn't really do any performance running on the softest compounds and low fuel, so we didn't really understand where we sat in the pecking order until the race weekend.
Esteban qualified ninth, while Pierre had an issue in qualifying and ended up being knocked out in Q1. That was not really where his pace was, or the pace of the car was. So he was a bit displaced and not in the normal starting position on the grid.
In the race Pierre did a good job to go from last to the points. He finished ninth and was around a second behind Valtteri Bottas at the end. However, Esteban faced a succession of errors, some on his part and some on the team's part. Actually, I think it went him, the team, and him! They were just operational errors that are easy to fix and should never have happened. But they did, which meant it ruined his race.
We totally understand what went wrong in the penalty pit stop, we were 0.4 seconds out, and we we've changed the process that we used to ensure it won't happen again.
Esteban’s penalty for being out of place on the grid was frustrating, however. In the past when rule changes like that were introduced, there would be some leeway to get used to the rules and understand if they are robust enough to implement.
It's now happened two races in a row, with Fernando also penalised in Jeddah. In fact, it happened to more than just two people, but only two received penalties. And lo and behold, we're talking about making the grid boxes bigger, in order to avoid future contraventions.
For Jeddah like everyone else we brought a low-drag rear wing. In hindsight, I'm not sure our drag level was 100% correct. It wasn't far off, but I think we could have gone for even less drag. As a result, we were a little bit less performant than we could have been.
We were really good in sector one, the one that required all the downforce, and not that great in sector two that required less drag. And that balance could have been a little bit more performant for us. You learn from that, and we’ll do a better job in the upcoming races as well as next year in Jeddah.
Esteban and Pierre qualified seventh and 10th. Pierre was happier with the car in FP3 and was less so in qualifying, and it was the exact opposite for Esteban.
Maybe the window to get it spot-on is small. Also, if the window is small it takes time to learn what that window is, and what you have to do to make sure that when track conditions change from FP3 to qualifying, you adjust the car so it stays in the window. The window can move because of changing conditions, and if the car is that sensitive to it, it takes a bit of time to fully understand it.
We'll get there with that. The more we run, the more we'll understand the car and where its sweet spot is, and we’ll make sure that we can adjust to it.
In the race Esteban and Pierre finished eighth and ninth. The Ferraris were ahead of us, and I was in favour trying to push up and race with them. Perhaps like us they were conserving at the end, and if we had pushed up, they would have just pushed up even further.
We were probably three to four-tenths of a second off in lap time in race trim, and a couple or three-tenths off in qualifying.
So we just have to out-develop them to get that performance on our car quicker than they can add performance on their cars. That's going to be the key to this year. We haven't given up, and we will work hard to achieve our goals.
Pierre has settled in pretty well at Alpine, and he's happy with his engineering team and the way the team treats him. I like him, he seems to be a very sensible young man who can be very fast.
It's not automatic for a driver to adjust to a new team, as we’ve seen in the past. You've got to understand your engineering team, the changes that are made to the car, and what they are going to do to the balance. And that's different from team-to-team.
So it will take a little bit of time, maybe another race or two, and he'll extract more out of the car. I talked to him and he said: ‘There's a couple or three tenths in me.’
If he's right and there are a couple or three-tenths in him then what we've got to do is come up with a development plan that's two to three-tenths more rapid than the others, and we've got to add that delta to our car more quickly than they can, and we will be racing with those who are currently just ahead of us on race pace.
It sounds easy to do. However, it’s not, it requires a lot of work and effort from the entire team. That's exactly what we're focused on. We've got some updates coming in Baku, and more updates in Miami. So we look forward to those races.
We continue to recruit like-minded, high calibre people to add to the already talented group at Enstone. We're still on a massive recruiting drive, and we’re looking for in the region of 50 people. For me stability is important, which is why I say we're adding talented individuals in areas where we believe we need to bolster our understanding.
Finally, a lot of people have asked me what I think of Drive to Survive. My overriding thought is that it has done the trick of attracting new fans to our already great sport. It's told the world about us. The sport has been this good forever. I don't want to say it was a well-kept secret, but it definitely wasn't as publicised as it is now, through Drive to Survive. So I think that's good.
Meanwhile my dog Bear is now famous thanks to Drive to Survive. I think he takes the fame a little bit better than I do…