Tuesday, April 11, 2023

MIRROR, MIRROR, ETC, ETC..... by John Crawford

The 2023 Formula One technical specifications included a small change you may not have noticed – all the cars now have larger rear-view mirrors this year. Why is that important?


All the better to see you with!

Because now drivers can more clearly see Aston Martin F1’s AMR23 filling the mirrors, resulting in three podiums in the first three Grands Prix of 2023.

The performance of the 2023 car, especially in the hands of double world champion Fernando Alonso, has dominated paddock chat about the Aston Martin team’s performance.

This is another one of those ‘overnight successes’ we often read about – only to find the outcomes have been years in the making. And, in Aston Martin’s case, not so many years. 


The changes, since Aston Martin Chairman Lawrence Stroll acquired the former Force India team in July 2018, have been coming thick and fast. However, rather than being purely engineering-driven, it’s a story of the ‘people’ AMR has hired which reveal the reasons for the improved 2023 performance.


Stroll is clearly a very determined man, and having invested £90 million in the former Force India Formula One team, he’s very keen to see a worthwhile ROI. This is in addition to his £190 million buyout of the Aston Martin car company in early 2020.

Then there was a huge investment in the new, huge, Aston Martin F1 Campus at Silverstone - which includes a wind tunnel.

Yes, they are all financed with leveraged borrowings, saddling both the car company and the F1 team with considerable debt, which has to be serviced, but with a personal net worth of USD$3.6 billion, impressive business savvy and a significant track record building companies and brands, I think there are probably many more lenders willing to provide funds to Stroll, as opposed to the previous Aston Martin Chairman, the hapless Andy Palmer.

Amazingly, when Force India went into administration, almost nobody left the team. I think the apparent loyalty to the team, and each other was quite inspiring. This meant Aston Martin managed to retain many key people who have proved invaluable to rebuilding financially-challenged Force India.

There are now more than 700 people populating AMR F1’s new Silverstone campus, but the strengths of the team today are almost purely related to the individual qualities of the key people Stroll has added to the technical side of the race team.


The path to the team’s current ‘overnight success’ has been turbulent at times, but also clear evidence that a well-structured business enterprise, managed on stable and well-structured principles is more likely to succeed.


Now, to step back in time. In 2010 I was commissioned to write a major feature for the Bahrain-published business magazine, TRENDS, about two key Indian businessmen with connections to cars. Sir Ratan Tata was an obvious choice, after acquiring both Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.


The second target of the feature was Vijay Mallya, the son of the founder of India’s UB Group – India’s largest liquor, spirits and drinks business – who had acquired the former Midland F1 team from Netherlands-based Spyker Cars for USD$109 million.


In my TRENDS story I suggested these two businessmen were probably India’s new ‘commercial princes’, but whilst Tata’s business credentials were never in doubt, Mallya was another story. He inherited his father’s large estate at just 27 years of age, with little experience running huge enterprises, which in addition to the drinks business, included a large pharmaceuticals division and a number of smaller enterprises.


Quite frankly, I was not surprised that over the years between 2007 and 2020, Mallya managed to piss away his father’s enormous legacy, and for a while was being pursued all over the globe by Indian police to stand trial for fraud, after the collapse of his three biggest investments – Kingfisher Airlines, Kingfisher Beer, and the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team, for which he paid an eye-watering USD$112 million.

However, this sad tale of rapid wealth depletion sits in complete contrast to Lawrence Stroll, and his smart moves both at Aston Martin, and the F1 team. He is driven, fiercely-determined, decisive, a highly self-confident manager with an aggressive outlook. I think he’s unlikely to reference the Mallya playbook in his management of the F1 team, because he has handed it to a very impressive manager.


So, now to AMR F1’s key hires which took place from halfway through 2021, to the present day. First and foremost the team’s new CEO Martin Whitmarsh (actually Chairman of Aston Martin Group Performance Technologies), who comes with 25 years F1 experience with McLaren, having guided that team to more than 100 GP wins.

Lance Stroll, Martin Whitmarsh, Lawrence Stroll

Whilst Stroll oversaw a number of new hires, Whitmarsh was urged to continue the  just ‘go and get the very best guys’ formula in order to build up AMR’s key strengths.


Given those very big talents and skill levels are concentrated in a group of very few individuals, Whitmarsh went ‘poaching’.


Beginning in June 2021, AMR F1 appointed Luca Furbatto (from Alfa Romeo) as Engineering Director. He was followed by the announcement that Dan Fallows (Red Bull’s leading aerodynamicist) will take on the role of Technical Director. This comes after the then Technical Director, Andrew Green, was promoted to Chief Technical Officer.


Andrew Alessi, Red Bull’s Chief Designer will move to AMR F1, as Head of Technical Operations. In addition to this talented troop, AMR F1 also lured Eric Blandin away from Mercedes-AMG. Frenchman, Blandin, also worked at the Fondmetal wind tunnel, before working on aerodynamics for the former Jaguar F1 team. Also, he spent a short period at Ferrari, also working in the field of aerodynamics.

Clockwise from top left - Mike Krack, Andrew Green, Eric Blandin, Dan Fallows, Luca Furbatto, Andrew Alessi
Following the continuation of the ‘overnight success’ theme, it seems all of these impressive appointments have settled in quickly, and the word from Silverstone is that the additions have brought new confidence and ambition within the existing team, which is evidenced by AMR F1’s much improved performance toward the end of the 2022 season.

Powertrain aside, because AMR F1 uses a Mercedes-AMG ‘customer engine’, it is clear that the input of new skills are bringing outstanding results in the area of chassis tuning and aerodynamics.

At the same time, I cannot dismiss the enormous benefit of bringing Fernando Alonso on board. I’ve met him a couple of times, and when I was asked what more Alonso could contribute, compared to multiple world champion Sebastian Vettel (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), my simple answer is a mix of personality and communication skills. Vettel is a German, and my experience, watching him at Red Bull, is that whilst he has amassed vast experience, and F1 trophies, he is simply not as communicative about the car as Alonso will be.


Alonso is a typical Spaniard, warm, friendly, affable and very willing to contribute in a voluble and valuable manner. 

Compared to the quiet German, Fernando will bring not only his F1 experience to bear, but also his unique views resulting from his Indy car starts.


With him behind the wheel, the AMR23 has consistently cut the gap to the team’s rivals. In Bahrain, Alonso was 0.6s off pole. In Saudi, that was down to 0.5s. In Australia, he shaved another tenth off to 0.4s.


It’s interesting also to look at the differences in the track surface of the Bahrain, Jeddah and Australian circuits. The AMR23 performed strongly in Bahrain, on the desert track’s cheesegrater surface where traction and power are important, and then in Saudi Arabia – home to the world’s fastest street circuit – and Australia, a semi-permanent track where conditions have been the coolest they’ve been all season.


The latter two circuits have a plethora of high-speed corners – and the AMR23 looked like it was on rails as it glided through them. Baku, the next round offers up yet another variation in circuits.

Team chief Mike Krack (left) says they are constantly working on small changes, but they will be introduced when they are ready, not just in one big package. The team strategy has been to clearly understand the ‘base’ car, before building on the data the first three rounds have produced. He is confident that by the fourth part of the season they will have produced a car which can finish ahead of teams like Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari.

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that these are impressive rivals, and they won’t be standing still.


Krack also directly pointed to the level of ambition and energy within the team. “We have a hard time getting people to home,” he said.


So, does this mean we will see Aston Martin move into the serious point-scoring positions? My take is, you bet! Mercedes AMG, McLaren and a few of the other teams do not seem to have uncovered the magic secrets of combining their experience and strengths with the 2023 regulations – whereas, I think Aston Martin is off to a cracking start.


Alonso is keen, wants to win, and I’m sure his presence in the team will fire up Lance Stroll – who I’m told by insiders was a bit intimidated by Vettel – I think Stroll junior will find the new partnership much more productive, inspiring and valuable to the team.


That’s why the AMR23 is filling the mirrors.



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