After ten races, everything is going to be a duel between McLaren and Alpine for fourth place. McLaren is in front, but Alpine has the better cards. Although the French racing team does not even reach the budget cap.
Alpine and McLaren are practically neighbors. Since 2019, the two teams have been fighting for 4th place, and often have their garages next to each other. Up until now, McLaren has always won. Alpine and its predecessor Renault have settled into 5th place for the last three years. McLaren finished the season fourth twice in the last three years and even third in 2020.
Also in the first year under the new regulations, the two contenders have found each other again in first place under the podium. However, it took a while for the old duel to take shape again. Both teams did not start the season optimally. McLaren lacked speed, Alpine lacked reliability.
Part 1 went to McLaren
McLaren first had to digest the shock of the start of the season when Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo found themselves in the back field. The team ignited an emergency program of damage analysis and remediation, and then realized that the base version of the MCL36 wasn't as bad as it looked in Bahrain after all. A good number of points were scored in Jeddah, Melbourne and Imola. Norris even finished on the podium at Imola.
Alpine undersold. The car was fast but unstable in the race. High tire wear and defects cost a lot of points. The first part of the season up to the first major upgrade festival in Barcelona clearly went to McLaren with 46:26 points. And then the traditional British racing team entered a semi-new car at the Spanish GP, while its French opponent only changed details. Although the McLaren was the faster car in Barcelona, Alpine took home more points.
From Baku, the design team under Pat Fry then started an ambitious upgrade program. New parts come for every race. First the side boxes and the rear wing. Then the underbody and the engine cover. Since Silverstone, the A522 has looked like a Red Bull in the front and a Ferrari in the back. The engineers protest. This is not a theft of ideas, but the logical further development of your own concept.
Alpine is slowly catching up
Calm has returned to McLaren in the last few races. The engineers under James Key believe in the concept that was completely renewed in Barcelona. "We want to understand it even better. It worked well in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Silverstone. We struggled in Baku and Montreal. We lost too much time on the straights. But if we take away more wings, we are too slow in the curves", team manager Andreas Seidl describes the vicious circle.
After Alpine slowly made up the gap in the last few races, also thanks to its upgrades, McLaren had high hopes for Silverstone to regain some breathing room there. In the end you had to give up two points to your opponent. It wasn't the car, it was the tactics. Lando Norris pitted one lap late during the safety car phase and gave away his 5th place to Fernando Alonso.
Alpine Head of Operations Alan Permane summed it up: "McLaren and we were equally fast throughout the race. Fifth place was a gift for us. But the race showed that our upgrades are working. Silverstone is a McLaren track. Nevertheless, we were able to keep up. That should give us an advantage at many other tracks. We also didn't have any problems with excessive wear on the toughest track for the tires. Based on that we have a good chance of fighting for fourth place." Alpine is sticking to its aggressive development roadmap. A new rear wing has been announced for Spielberg.
The top position in midfield is also Andreas Seidl's goal. "The first three are gone. But we want to be the best of the rest and draw the right conclusions for 2023 from our car." To do this, the engineers first have to filter out the strengths and weaknesses of the MCL36. A clear pattern is difficult to discern. This much is clear: the McLaren does not like straight lines and bumps. But he has a good balance between fast and slow corners. Something he used to miss.
Seidl also worries that McLaren is a one-man team at most races. Daniel Ricciardo struggles too often with his car. So also at Silverstone. "The same thing happened to me as in Barcelona. In the race I just didn't feel any more grip." At the moment, no one has a reasonable explanation as to why the Australian, who until three years ago was in the top five in the driver market, is not picking up steam at McLaren. Alpine has it better. Both drivers would have scored again if Esteban Ocon hadn't rolled out with problems with the fuel system.
In addition to the vehicle development and the drivers, the budget could also tip the scales in the fight for 4th place. Alpine doesn't even manage the budget limit and still reinvents its car all the time. With 825 employees, the racing team is no smaller than McLaren. There, however, people are also exercising restraint in the arms race because they are afraid of overshooting the budget cap. Seidl first wants to wait and see how the argument about the inflation surcharge will continue and how much extra money will come into the account. In this case, Alpine would also have more money in the till.