Fernando Alonso was one of the first through the gates on the season’s opening day in Bahrain.
The paddock paparazzi standing sentry to capture the arrivals were grateful for an early banker and noted how chipper he looked, giving off anything but fortysomething vibes.
Alonso is practiced at the grand entrance, as you would expect after making them for 21 years, and would have known the value of arriving unaccompanied by members of the Aston Martin retinue, offering a clean shot of the only component that matters, the driver.
Alonso skipped through, a broad smile creasing his handsome features. A brief detour delivered him into the embrace of Moko, the Chrome Hearts jewellery designer and paddock fixture who was taking in the first-day atmosphere.
The exchange was revealing in so much as it demonstrated not only a driver at ease but also energised, keen, eager to crack on.
After driving to what was only his second podium in nine years two days later we understood a little more of the substance behind Aston Martin’s astonishing development over the winter and the optimism fuelling Alonso’s Indian summer.
There are, of course, the usual caveats. Bahrain’s abrasive circuit was more of a handicap to Ferrari and Mercedes than an Aston Martin kinder to its tyres. Saudi Arabia and Australia will provide a more accurate assessment of Aston Martin’s capabilities, but as Alonso counters, this is just the start of the learning curve with this car.
Even if their rivals in chasing the peerless Red Bulls gain an uplift here and Melbourne, the developmental potential at Aston Martin is greater since they have more to discover about the behaviour of the AMR23. And they have greater research and development capacity courtesy of a handicap system that compensates teams lower down the field with more wind tunnel time.
Though Ferrari and Mercedes have the edge in straight line speed the new-look Aston generates more downforce and was far more efficient through the corners. And in Alonso’s hands the car was a scalpel through turns nine and 10, where he accounted first for Lewis Hamilton and later Carlos Sainz, both of whom had no answer on fading rubber.
Alonso warned at the launch at Silverstone that Aston Martin was a team with which to be reckoned, if at that point he believed race wins would be hard to secure in 2023. He was bluffing. The team were armed with wind tunnel and simulator data projections that would be substantiated on day one of the pre-season test in Bahrain.
Alonso was less equivocal about the long-term prospects of an organisation investing heavily in a competitive future. He was persuaded to leave the fourth best performer of 2022, Alpine, a team backed by the manufacturer heft of Renault, by a charismatic owner with insane ambition.
The former Jordan facility at Silverstone is already unrecognisable as the factory continues its £200m expansion, with a new wind tunnel to come online in 2024 as part of a 37,000sq metre upgrade.
A pristine new home set out over three distinct buildings connected by bridges speaks of big cat desire, of ego and muscular determination, characteristics that have made a billionaire of Lawrence Stroll and are transforming Aston Martin into the Ferrari of the shires.
If the fabric of the building is impressive, so too has been a stop-at-nothing recruitment policy that saw Stroll bag the biggest brains from the best teams, including the lead aerodynamicists from Red Bull and Mercedes.
Dan Fallows, who worked alongside Adrian Newey in making Red Bull the class of the field under the new ground force regulations, was appointed technical director with Mercedes guru Eric Blandin, the architect of Brackley’s hybrid era dominance, joining as deputy TD.
Under the leadership of Fallows and Blandin, Aston Martin have made brilliant use of Mercedes’ powertrain and gearbox in a car birthed from the Mercedes wind tunnel. Alonso is the final, necessary component, an alchemist spinning gold from all the moving parts.
The appropriation of Mercedes powertrain technology married to aero principles brazenly borrowed from Red Bull has catapulted Aston Martin into uncharted territory and given Alonso scope to consider what was unimaginable when he committed his signature to Aston Martin six months ago, a chance to challenge the mighty bulls for victory.
To witness Alonso scythe past Hamilton on the inside of turn 10, drawing the exclamation “yes, let’s go” and reel in Sainz at the same spot on lap 45, “yes, bye bye”, was to hail a Tardis to 2005 when he was hunting down Ferrari in a Renault and taking Michael Schumacher on the outside of Suzuka’s formidable 130R. That singular demonstration of preternatural talent and fearless commitment at 180mph moved the ITV commentator to remark he had never seen anything like it.
The episode signalled the of Schumacher’s F1 hegemony and alerted the world to the potential of a 23-year-old who within weeks would become F1’s youngest champion. Had owner Ron Dennis managed better the dynamic between Alonso and Hamilton in 2007, McLaren would almost certainly have taken Alonso to a third world championship, and perhaps more.
As it was the season imploded even before the “Spygate” scandal – the acquisition by McLaren of a Ferrari design dossier – took everyone down at Woking.
Alonso’s eventual move to Ferrari fell marginally short. Whilst eeking out time at Alpine there appeared nil prospect of augmenting his record with a third crown. One race in 2023 has changed the landscape dramatically. It is clear that Alonso has happened across a serendipitous juncture at Aston Martin with an opportunity to embroider his late period in ermine, if not this year, then next.
As exceptional as Max Verstappen and Red Bull might be, predictability is death to the sporting spectacle. Alonso has always been popular, but he is collecting admirers by the million as F1’s burgeoning new audience flocks to the story of 2023. And if you believe in number magic, the one that adorns Alonso’s car, 14, is that which took him to his first international kart title in Genk, aged 14 on July 14, 1996. Now invert his age and tell me there is nothing cosmic going on.