Aston Martin came out of the gates flying last year, with Fernando Alonso scoring six podiums across the first eight grands prix in a car that raced better than it qualified.

The team then found it difficult to keep up the development of its 2023 machine compared to the steeper curve its rivals were making, and slipped to fifth in the builders’ standings.

That picture hasn’t changed much over the winter, with Aston Martin seemingly the fifth-fastest team in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In the relative game that is Formula 1, Aston’s regression is perhaps more down to Mercedes and particularly Ferrari upping their game in race trim than to anything the Silverstone team has got wrong, while McLaren it simply confirmed its vast improvements across the second half of 2023.

But what has been apparent is that this year’s AMR24 appears capable of going toe to toe with its direct rivals in qualifying, only to fall back in race trim, which is the opposite of last year’s picture.

“In Bahrain, we were definitely faster over one lap, comparing the long-run pace. There is a trend, it seems this year that we are struggling on the long runs, on the race pace,” said Alonso after qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

While the withdrawal Lance Stroll didn’t offer a second data point, Alonso did fare better in Jeddah compared to Bahrain, where he slipped from sixth to ninth.
Alonso finished fifth, close behind McLaren’s Oscar Piastribut remarked “we still miss two or three tenths comparing Mercedes and McLaren, maybe a little bit more comparing Red Bull and Ferrari, while in qualifying we seem pretty close.”

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Speaking before the Jeddah race, Aston’s performance director Tom McCullough said the team was still investigating why its balance between qualifying and race pace had shifted, but offered some clues which were later confirmed in the race.

“Historically we’ve tended to race strongly and found qualifying a little bit harder. The characteristics of this car, it’s quite a different car for us aerodynamically,” McCullough replied when Motorsport.com asked him about the discrepancy between short- and long-run competitiveness.

“We’re learning how to get the most out of it. We approached this weekend with the strategy of trying to improve the long runs and not really worrying too much about where we qualified, with very much the engineering focus of trying to have a good looking car after its rear tires in the race, and let’s see how we qualify with it.”

But other than optimizing its new package and settling on a ride height compromise between low and high fuel loads, one factor behind Aston’s relatively better qualifying form has been a huge push to improve the efficiency of its drag reduction system after seeing how much Red Bull gains from its design.

With DRS use free in qualifying and both Bahrain and Jeddah’s Corniche circuit having three such zones, any improvements there are hugely beneficial over one lap.

The AMR24 was around 19km/h quicker on the straights with the DRS open in Jeddah, and over 20km/h faster in Bahrain, while last year the difference was somewhere between 12 and 15 km/h, bringing it more in line with what the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari are doing.

“The efficiency of the car, the DRS switch, is something we worked really hard on last year as we saw how strong the Red Bull was,” McCullough explained. “A lot of people had a good look at that, trying to come to a solution that when you bang that DRS button, you shed a lot more drag.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“That’s part of the reasons we’ve qualified well, we have a very strong DRS switch. I was looking at the difference between qualifying last year and this year with nearly identical wind direction and wind speed, the difference was quite big. We gained a lot of time from that.”

Alonso’s encouraging race result seemed to confirm that despite a track-position race with limited strategic options, Aston’s race oriented set-up choices paid off.

But the true test for the Silverstone squad will be whether it can achieve what it couldn’t do in 2023, and keep up the pace in the off-track development race.

“We went back to a different philosophy with the car this year aerodynamically, to try to give ourselves that platform to keep developing,” McCullough concluded.

“At the moment, we’re in that phase where we’re able to develop well with our development tools, so it’s about getting those bits on the track as quickly as possible, hoping that development continues.

“That side is looking pretty good, but as I keep saying, it’s a relative game. We want to just keep chipping away, improving the car and getting closer to the front of the grid.”

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