Alfa Romeo finished Formula 1’s season-opening event in 11th and 12th, prompting the team to label them the “cruellest positions”, but it offered the outfit optimism that it has put some of its 2020 woes to bed.
Statistically speaking, Alfa Romeo had a worse season opener in 2021 than 2020, when it took home two points, but this year’s first round was a far more encouraging encounter for the Switzerland-based team.
The C41s both made it through to Q2 beneath the lights in Bahrain; it took until the sixth round of 2020 for the squad to even make it out of Q1 with one car. Giovinazzi bested Raikkonen for honours, taking 12th, with Raikkonen settling for 14th spot. It marked Alfa Romeo’s best dry qualifying result since 2019.
Last November at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, both drivers failed to advance from Q1 – fast forward a handful of months and at the same venue, Giovinazzi missed out on a spot in Q3 by just over one-tenth of a second. Relative to the other 10 teams, only power unit provider Ferrari made more year-on-year ‘gains’ at the Sakhir circuit.
“This helps us confirm the positive feeling we had after testing: we have improved compared to last year and we feel we can have a lot more fun this season,” asserted Giovinazzi, as team boss Frederic Vasseur spoke of “having made some big steps in the right direction.”
Alfa Romeo’s lacklustre qualifying results often hampered its race prospects in 2020 but from loftier starting spots it was in the mix in Bahrain.
Raikkonen made the better start, jumping Giovinazzi, though the Italian muscled his way past at the restart – with both gaining a spot when Pierre Gasly was shuffled to the rear of the field with a broken front wing. Raikkonen began to argue that he was faster than Giovinazzi while tucked up behind him.
Giovinazzi’s race began to unravel when a poor first pit stop cost him seven seconds, effectively relegating him to 15th place, after exchanging Mediums for Hards.
Raikkonen, meanwhile, emerged a lap later in effectively 11th, with Sebastian Vettel ahead yet to make his first stop. Sergio Perez, in the faster Red Bull car, made quick work of Raikkonen to demote him down a spot.
During the middle stint, Raikkonen was faster than both Alpine cars. On a set of Hard tyres, compared to Alonso and Ocon on Mediums, Raikkonen averaged a 1:37.008s in the middle stint compared to a 1:37.679s for Alonso (who was battling brake issues) and a 1:37.323s for Ocon – a hopeful development for Alfa Romeo.
Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, who ended the race in ninth place, set an average lap time of 1:37.023s during his second stint, virtually matching Raikkonen despite being on a softer compound.
During that second stint, Raikkonen overtook Vettel, who was on aging tyres, and Alonso. Giovinazzi, who was running in 15th, gradually gained on Ocon during the second stint but drifted away later on – until the Frenchman’s prospects were wrecked when Vettel used the A521 as a brake.
Raikkonen, who unlike his team-mate was quicker than Ocon during the final stages, found himself in a battle with Yuki Tsunoda in the rapid AlphaTauri, but couldn’t keep the Japanese driver behind. It was not the most surprising development, as AlphaTauri looked to possess one of the quickest midfield cars on Friday, however it more or less ended the team’s quest for points. Nonetheless, Raikkonen came home in 11th spot, just a few seconds behind Tsunoda and Stroll, while Giovinazzi took 12th, just 15 seconds down on Raikkonen.
“Had the race been a few laps longer, we probably would have been able to catch the cars in front but we will keep trying,” Raikkonen said. “The car felt good, as it did in testing, so it is clear we have made a step forward compared to last year: we still have a bit to work to close the gap with the top five teams, but we keep fighting to find that little bit extra.”
Bahrain was just one race from 23, and the midfield pecking order will no doubt fluctuate, but the fact Alfa Romeo was legitimately in the mix for points can act as encouragement.
Power unit supplier Ferrari enjoyed signs of recovery and the increased grunt from the horses propelling the C41 have undoubtedly assisted Alfa Romeo too.
The team was bullish post-race, and is confident that top 10 finishes will be more regular than 2020, when it amassed only eight points across 17 races.
“We raced with authority, leaving the Alpines and an Aston Martin behind us and finishing on the tail of the other Aston,” said Team Principal Frederic Vasseur. “Even though we leave Bahrain with no points, we do so having reclaimed our place in the midst of the midfield – and results will surely come soon.
“We demonstrated to be the able to fight in and around the top ten and we can look with optimism to the rest of the season. It was an eventful race, even though the low attrition rate – just two retirements – meant we had our work cut out when aiming for a place in the points.
“We take a lot of positives, however, knowing we can go to the next race in Imola ready to battle again for a place in the top 10.”