The start of Formula 1 ‘s new engine-freeze era last year marked the best and worst of times for the engine partnership between Alpine and Renault – one of which we’ve seen plenty unfold over the course of the 2022 season.
On the positive side, its revamped Renault E-Tech RE22 power unit ensured a decent head start in horsepower, but also a compact design that helped ‘package’ the A522 car to help improve its aerodynamics. But the pursuit of aggressive gains had its downsides. Too many times Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon saw points opportunities evaporate due to engine failures.
At the end of the year, it was no surprise to find Alonso especially unhappy with the amount of trouble he faced and the price he personally paid for it.
“I think it was around minus 50 [points], so now we have eight more,” he said after the heartbreak of his Mexican GP exit. “So that’s minus 58 points or minus 60 in a year, which is really unacceptable on my car.”
But despite the difficult moments that sometimes made it seem like Renault had got it all wrong, the truth of their situation was one of calculated risks. As Ferrari had done, Renault knew that, with the engine freeze looming towards the end of 2025, there was no room to hold on to the performance it was competing with last year.
With the technical changes only allowed for reliability issues once the season started, any power left behind with the 2022-spec engine would effectively be lost forever. The tactic, therefore, was to play everything to bring performance from the start: even if that meant things weren’t as reliable initially as they should have been.
While this risked opening the door to the kind of problems Alpine would face, it was always a case of ‘short term pain’ for long term gain. The payoff would come later, as by the time the reliability fixes were in place, the final product would be much better overall than a super secure lower spec initial release project.
Renault’s F1 engine boss, Bruno Famin , said it was far from a conservative approach.
“We actually took a lot of risks,” he said, reflecting on last year’s situation. “The risk we took was trying to develop the engine as light as possible and running the risk of not doing the entire validation process that we would normally do. We really wanted to push until the last moment and we had some problems. But we really wanted to push as hard as we could on the development side.”
Famin acknowledges that his approach triggered some difficult times in 2022, but he is convinced it was the right thing to do.
“I think the strategy was good, even with some problems”, he explained. “We had problems in Singapore. Two in fact which were very strange because having two different problems in eight laps was unbelievable. But all the other issues we had were much more on the ancillary side: water pump, fuel pump and that’s something we’re pretty optimistic we’ll be able to sort out in ’23.”
Alpine is indeed working on a refurbished water pump for 2023 and tweaking other ancillaries, to try to ensure there is no repeat of the scale of reliability dramas it faced last year. What this means is that the reliability issues didn’t trigger any need to sacrifice performance to play it safe, which is exactly what was to be expected.
“I don’t think we’re going to go back on anything”, adds Famin about the steps planned for this year. “We are going to work and we are already working deeply on the details, especially on the auxiliary part. But the second part is we’re pushing our validation processes, trying to improve it and trying to do the best we can to a much better way than we did for 2022.
“If we didn’t fully do it in 2022, it wasn’t because we didn’t want to. Rather, it’s because we prefer to prioritize the development side. So, the goal for 2023 is to maintain the same level of performance and make everything reliable.”
With the freeze in place, Famin acknowledges that it will be difficult for Alpine to make further performance gains, but he makes clear that doesn’t mean it will stop looking for ways to unleash extra pace.
“There’s no real margin to be honest, because you generally can’t improve engine performance,” he says. “What we can do is try to improve the performance of the car, like through the packaging, for example. We can imagine changing an intake line or changing the exhaust line, to allow our Enstone colleagues to do better aerodynamics.
“We are also working on energy management. But again, we will be very limited. We’re only going to have one software release a year now, so it’s going to be very limited. The idea is to make progress, even if it is a very small margin. It’s not pure performance. It’s more handling and aerodynamic integration/gains.”
Returns may be waning, but that’s why Alpine made its bet last year. Now, 2023 will adequately show whether their risky tactic paid off.