Aston Martin Formula 1 team owner Lawrence Stroll didn’t have a lot to smile about after a frustrating weekend for the Silverstone outfit in Bahrain.
This season was supposed to see a resurgence from the team as it benefited from the expansion of the last couple of years, and the new regulations opened up an opportunity for those in the midfield to make a step.
However on a weekend when the likes of Haas and Alfa Romeo showed signs of significant progress and logged dream results, Aston Martin stumbled.
Matters were not helped by the loss of Sebastian Vettel to COVID, and the necessity to call on reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg to step in at the last minute. The lack of continuity in one car was an unnecessary distraction, but performance was missing all weekend even with Lance Stroll, who had done a lot of running in the AMR22. In the end Hulkenberg and Stroll qualified 17th and 19th respectively, and on Sunday evening they finished 12th and 17th, this time with the Canadian ahead.
As with the likes of fellow strugglers McLaren and Williams there could well be a lot of potential still to be unlocked from the green car, but doing that in the world of a budget cap and aero testing restrictions, and with so much still to learn about how the 2022 chassis package and tyres interact, won’t be the work of a moment.
Bahrain was very much a baptism of fire for new team principal Mike Krack, who started in the job earlier this month after 13 years away from F1.
“Obviously every team has its problems,” he noted after the race. “So we were not 100% where we were, to be honest. We had to work all test sessions, or all winter testing, around these problems. I think we were not the only ones. So at that point we didn’t really know where we were.
“Yesterday when qualifying came we got the first taste, because it also depends on the way you do your runs, at what time of the day, which tyres you’re having, which engine modes you’re running. It was a surprise, a negative one unfortunately.”
Krack conceded that losing Vettel was costly: “It came at a point where you really do not need it, because we had no references at all [before testing], and then you change the driver at the last moment.
“So that leaves you with only one reference, which is always quite dangerous. It is difficult for Nico obviously to jump in like that, because he has no reference either, as he didn’t test. So you are a bit in the dark. For sure it was not a help, but still that does not say that the car is quick.”
So what has gone wrong at Aston Martin, and how can the team solve its problems?
The main one at the moment is that it has struggled more than some rivals to get on top of the porpoising issue. It has found a way to dial it out, and at least stop the car being shaken to bits. However the higher ride height means the AMR22 is not performing in the window that it was designed for.
Chief technical officer Andrew Green noted after qualifying the ride height and associated compromises alone are costing three-quarters of a second, even before any other performance deficits are tackled.
“Andrew is right if he says that, but there are also other areas,” says Krack. “Obviously you run a compromise, and at one point you have to say how much compromise do I still keep carrying on?
“It is a choice you have to make at the end of the day. First of all you need to operate the car reliably, and you cannot run a race if it is porpoising like that.
“It is not a fundamental design problem, it is a problem that everyone is having. You can see some teams got away with it quicker, had the solution quicker. Others have found it later, but when you compare to the first test in Barcelona I think the level of porpoising that we had here is none, basically.”
One of the problems all teams are facing is that they cannot accurately model porpoising in the windtunnel, partly because of top speed limitations that are below real world track conditions. That means research has to be done at the track on Fridays and it means there’s less focus on optimising the car for the particular race weekend.
The team hopes to have some new parts as early as this weekend, but physically getting them to the track isn’t straight forward.
“What we are struggling now or facing now are these trips,” says Krack. “A double header, or maybe it is a triple header with the test, then we go to Australia. You have all these logistics hurdles, that if you had now three or four events in Europe, you could just bring parts and parts and parts. So this is an additional challenge.
“You have to anticipate the shipping and customs, whereas in Europe you can just go in the windtunnel or develop and manufacture parts, because you must not forget you also have to manufacture these things. And we speak mainly about floors here, and manufacturing floors and floor modifications is very time consuming.”
Green made it clear at the car’s launch that the AMR22 has been designed with some flexibility in mind, in case the team discovered that rivals had found more effective concepts, and had to copy them. Nevertheless making a significant change of direction won’t be easy.
“Concept-wise I think it will be difficult,” Krack admits. “But this is a team that has done this job for many, many years.
“They knew where they had to build flexibility in the basic concept, so that you can adjust it, and in other areas you can be maybe a bit less compromise-orientated. I think we still have all the options open.”
Another challenge with the development race is that the team is learning all the time. Even while new bits are being built, different directions with more potential are being found. It’s a tricky balancing act.
“This is the critical bit,” says Krack. “Because each time the car is running you have some new analysis, and you have a new data point, but sometimes the new data point is in another direction than the one that you had thought of.
“So it could be that you have taken a direction but you need to change, while parts are already being made. So it is a constant juggling, have we taken the right decision? Because also with the cost cap you must not do five different parallel avenues.
“From that point of view we cannot forget that we are still a small team, we cannot just run parallel developments.”
One area is out of the team’s hands. It was hard to miss the fact that fairly early in the Bahrain race the six Mercedes-powered customer cars had collected at the bottom of the order, and indeed that’s how it was in the final classification.
“This is an observation that we already made quite early,” says Krack. “But on the other hand we see the Mercedes factory team finishing third and fourth today, so still with this powertrain you can do a good job.
“And I think first it is for us to build a proper car, or quicker car, before we go too much into what you are observing. It is true what you’re saying, but I think the competition has made maybe a bigger step, and that is something we need to catch up on.”
The team’s technical department has been much strengthened since this time last year, and former Red Bull man Dan Fallows is arriving in a fortnight. He’ll obviously have a good idea of where the RB18 was before he went on gardening leave, but Krack says the main thing is the skill set he brings.
“I think having someone like Dan will be a huge asset. I don’t think because of his knowledge of Red Bull, but because of his personality and his technical expertise.
“So we are looking forward to him arriving in two weeks’ time. I think we must not isolate this with his work at Red Bull, but with the person and his technical skills.”
For Krack himself Bahrain wasn’t the start that he would have liked, and his only consolation was that other teams are also struggling, notably McLaren – run by his friend and former Porsche WEC colleague Andreas Seidl.
The latter has done a great job of turning McLaren around over the past couple of years, and Krack now has to try to do the same.
“It will take a while,” he says. “But I have to say the team is very open. From day one I had very good conversations, got into the technical details, which I think is very important, that you have an understanding of what happens, so that we can take the right direction.
“I would be lying if I said I’m on top of everything. But it has been a fairly good two weeks, I would say. The learning curve is not flat, this I can tell you.”