BUDAPEST, Hungary — After 11 races, Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s Formula One success is as inevitable as the turning of night into day. However the battle behind the runaway leaders has been the complete opposite.
The notion of a ‘Big Three’ has been shattered this year. In 2022, Lando Norris’ third place for McLaren at Imola was the only time someone other than Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari drivers were on the podium.
This year, Aston Martin, McLaren and Alpine have joined Mercedes and Ferrari in taking podium places behind a Red Bull victor in the 11 races so far.
McLaren is now Aston Martin
At the start of the year, Aston Martin was the toast of the paddock, having leapt from a fairly anonymous seventh-place finish in 2022 to being the next best team behind Red Bull.
A strong preseason was then vindicated by third position at the Bahrain Grand Prix and in the early races it looked as though Aston had leapfrogged Mercedes and Ferrari to be the best of the rest.
McLaren’s start could not have been more different. A dismal preseason was followed by the removal of technical chief James Key and the establishment of a three-pronged technical committee beneath team boss Andreas Stella.
There was a feeling Aston’s jump up the order was embarrassing to the likes of McLaren and Alpine, who for a long time had suggested the gap between the top three and the rest was almost insurmountable.
Huge emphasis was placed on the B-spec car we saw rolled out in Austria and the upgrades have a lot of similarities to the class-leading Red Bull RB19. That upgrade has helped McLaren muscle in on Aston’s old spot, with Lando Norris scoring two consecutive podiums in the newly upgraded car.
A poorly timed safety car denied teammate Oscar Piastri sharing the podium with him at Silverstone and the Australian rookie didn’t quite have the pace to stay in the fight in Hungary, but it’s clear McLaren is up there.
While Silverstone was impressive, McLaren’s pace in Hungary seemed to suggest the team now has a car for all conditions. The Hungaroring’s collection of slower-speed corners and the hot temperatures over the weekend read like a checklist of the old McLaren car’s worst type of racetrack and Norris himself had played down a return to the podium in Hungary after his finish at the British Grand Prix, but it was clear early on last week how strong the McLaren was.
Asked if McLaren can aim for the podium every week now, Piastri said: “I think so.
“Silverstone and here have been very different circuits, very different conditions. These track temperatures were the stuff of our nightmares at the start of the year and Lando’s still managed to be on the podium, I’ve managed to be on the top five, so really the only car better than us was the Red Bull.
“Lewis was clearly very quick as well but compared to where we were, even a few weekends ago, it’s very exciting that we can realistically aim for that every weekend.”
Unlike Aston early this year, who saw Alonso score a handful of podiums while Lance Stroll struggled to get close, McLaren has two drivers looking competitive.
“McLaren, in all honesty, maybe seem one small step ahead,” Mercedes driver George Russell said on Sunday evening in Budapest.
“Probably more so on Lando’s side, Lando has done a really great job. But you know, I’ve been really impressed with Oscar this year. He hasn’t really put a foot wrong all season, as a rookie it’s really impressive.
“He’ll get there I’m sure, maybe to Lando’s level at some point. Who knows? When that’s the case, they’re going to be a real threat, but I think we’ve got enough legs on them so far to hold them off until the rest of the season. I’d say we’re maybe equal second with McLaren.”
Team boss Andreas Stella said the Hungary result “makes us a bit more optimistic for the future than we were after Silverstone” and, leaving the paddock on Sunday, there were no doubts the papaya orange cars will be podium contenders going for the foreseeable future.
McLaren also has its long-awaited wind tunnel coming online this summer, which team CEO Zak Brown wants to use as a springboard to being championship contenders by 2025. That ambition seemed quite ludicrous at the start of the year, but the last few weeks have suddenly given a different feel to McLaren’s long-term goals.
Aston Martin is now Alpine
Aston Martin’s excellent start to the season saw Fernando Alonso claim six podiums from the first eight races, but he’s finished fifth, seventh and ninth since his last trip there.
Lance Stroll has not managed to match his teammate’s performances, with four points in as many races.
There are different schools of thought around Aston Martin. One is Aston has dropped further behind than it was at the beginning of the season, another — one put forward by Alonso and the team in recent weeks — is that their gap to Red Bull is more or less the same, but the likes of McLaren and Mercedes have now filled some of that gap with their upgrades since.
In F1’s new era of operating within a budget cap, Aston may be the first example of a team doing well early on, only to see progress and gains reined in by the financial realities of that system.
It is also fair to wonder how much Aston Martin’s progress has stalled with the opening of its new Silverstone factory.
While team owner Lawrence Stroll hopes that new state-of-the-art facility will make Aston a powerhouse in the coming years, the slow transfer from one facility to another may have come at a short-term cost in terms of car development.
Whatever the truth, Aston Martin has dropped back to where Alpine was early in the season, with a car comfortably good enough to make Q3, but not really quite have the pace to regularly be in the podium fight up ahead.
Alonso believes the team needs to have a close look at the recent successes of teams like McLaren.
“We need to see many things,” Alonso said after the race in Budapest. “It’s up to us to understand a little better what the car is doing now compared to the beginning of the season, how many upgrades we brought compared to our main competitors. It’s the same for everybody, we need to do a better job.”
He also pointed out how many changes there have been across the order, not just simply in the midfield. When asked if Aston Martin has simply slipped up in the development race, he said: “Difficult to know, I mean every race we will love to understand and we will have many questions and we never know exactly what is the cause of it.
“In Austria, Hulkenberg on the hard was fourth after qualifying, so we were all surprised. Silverstone, Williams were very fast and we were surprised. Here Alfa Romeo was very fast, we were all surprised, then normally in the race everything balances out and the big teams finish in front… We are just in the back end of those top teams so we need to get back to the front end of that group.”
Alpine is now McLaren
What on earth has happened to Alpine? Esteban Ocon’s wonderful Monaco Grand Prix podium seems a distant memory at the moment. The French team has scored just ten points in the five races since and there’s been no outwards signs of the team replicating some of the gains made by rivals recently.
Sunday’s double DNF in Hungary was purely bad luck, with Ocon and Pierre Gasly passengers in the collision started by Zhou Guanyu, but the Alpines struggled for pace in qualifying and had both cars eliminated in Q2.
Alpine seems to be in a really bizarre place at the moment. While McLaren had personnel changes around the team taking place earlier in the year, ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix Alpine confirmed Laurent Rossi was out as CEO — moved on to “special projects” within the Renault Group — and replaced by Phillipe Krief.
Over the weekend, Alpine insisted it was not a demotion for Rossi and that it was a natural evolution of the structure overseeing the team, but that does not tally up with recent events.
Just a week before the Rossi news, Bruno Famin had been made VP of Alpine Motorsports in what the company said “would further simplify and reinforce Alpine’s governance under Laurent Rossi’s leadership”.
For Alpine, Renault CEO Luca de Meo’s decision to move Rossi out of that leadership role the same month as Famin’s promotion hints at considerable turmoil behind the scenes. The problem Alpine faces is that management and structural changes have been a common theme of its recent history.
The team has had a revolving door of drivers recently, too, and several of those who have departed (see Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso as recent examples) suggesting the constant changes above are holding Alpine back from making true progress on track.
If Alpine is the new McLaren, then perhaps there’s reason for some optimism down the line. The team welcomed some new investment earlier this year, a consortium which included Wrexham owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McEllhenney, and as McLaren’s resurgence has shown the team could well revive their fortunes in the short or long term.
However, given Alpine’s history, and the fact it has never really made a significant step forward in its time on the F1 grid, it is hard to feel optimistic it is about to do so given where it’s at right now.
Mercedes and Ferrari are still the same
The two teams expected to take the fight to Red Bull at the start of the year have had bizarre campaigns, but are largely in the same positions they have been for a few months.
Mercedes has done well to progress after starting the year as it did in Bahrain, when it decided to abandon its zero sidepod car concept after one bad qualifying session. The major upgrade introduced at Monaco has clearly solved a lot of the issues Mercedes spent large parts of 2022 battling but it is still no match for the dominant RB19.
Pole position at the Hungarian GP was a boost for the team and showed that it isn’t as far away from the front as it might have felt in 2022. Mercedes can take comfort from the fact it is still, it seems, there or thereabouts in the podium fight most weekends. Norris said as much on Sunday evening.
“Their car has been pretty good,” the McLaren driver said. “I know Lewis complains a lot about how amazing our car is and how bad theirs is. But they don’t have a bad car and they haven’t all season”.
Ferrari, meanwhile, has remained as frustrating as ever. The team has made some puzzling strategic choices this year, something which was a hallmark of 2022, when Charles Leclerc’s championship challenge imploded after the opening rounds.
The removal of strategic chief Inaki Rueda at the start of the year may have helped, although Ferrari’s in-race radio communications with its drivers still seem to lack some of the conviction and certainty enjoyed by other teams. Hungary was another case of the team making life hard for itself.
“The pit stop was quite slow, we had a five-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane,” Leclerc said on Sunday, where he and Carlos Sainz finished seventh and eighth. “So again, that is difficult.
“Honestly, it’s frustrating overall because I felt that, the pace we had, even as a driver when you are feeling like you are doing a good job with the car you have, nobody really notices it. When you are doing a bad job, everybody notices it.
“It’s difficult but in the end, it’s part of the game and it’s just up to us now to do a step forward as McLaren did. Now we are on the back foot, it’s been confirmed through the last three weekends. There is a lot of work to do.”
One puzzling thing has been that the feedback from Leclerc and Sainz is that the car has felt pretty good, relatively speaking, but Ferrari has clearly slipped back in the pecking order and it is on the back foot going to the Belgian Grand Prix.
“I feel like the result is much worse than what it felt like,” Leclerc said of the Hungarian GP. So, as is often the case with Ferrari, things don’t quite make sense and it is hard to see things immediately improving.