Will Alpine’s recent progress withstand the defection of its star driver? · RaceFans

France gifted more than most nations to the world of motorsport, not least inventing the term ‘grand prix’. But it has had a complicated give-and-take relationship with F1 in the 21st century.

Renault claimed the world championship titles under the Tricolour in 2005 and 2006, but soon afterwards the French Grand Prix disappeared off the schedule for a full decade. And when the sport finally returned to France in 2018, it was at the renovated test track Paul Ricard, which struggled to inspire fans and hasn’t found a place on the 2023 F1 calendar.

Renault departed the sport as a factory team but remained as a power unit manufacturer before returning in 2016 to the Enstone factory which had been their previous home. They immediately set a plan to build themselves back into a championship-contending outfit once again. But in 2023, entering a third season under their sportscar brand Alpine, they have only managed to progress to the top of the midfield, rather than break through and join the front-running teams again.

After three consecutive seasons sitting fifth in the championship, Alpine narrowly secured the ‘best of the rest’ spot last year, for the first time since 2018. But its 2022 campaign was not as enjoyable as its final finishing position suggested.

Pierre Gasly, Alpine, Yas Marina, 2022
Gasly joins the team for 2023

First, they owed a large debt of gratitude to Daniel Ricciardo. The McLaren driver’s points tally was so poor that even though team mate Lando Norris finished ahead of both Alpine drivers, the blue team came out ahead in the constructors’ standings.

More memorably, their year was defined by a humiliating double-blow in the driver market. First, talisman Fernando Alonso announced he was bailing out at the end of the season to take his talents to Aston Martin. Then, Alpine’s attempt to call up junior Oscar Piastri to replace Alonso blew up in the team’s face when it was revealed he had already signed a contract with McLaren for 2023. After a long legal process, McLaren were ultimately confirmed to have legitimate rights to Piastri for this year, compounding Alpine’s embarrassment further.

But although they lost a potential talent in Piastri, they ultimately ended up gaining a proven one in the form of Pierre Gasly, who has finally broken free from the Red Bull system to join Alpine in the seat vacated by Alonso. And so, the only French team in Formula 1 now has two French drivers at their disposal – the first time since Renault fielded Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux in 1982.

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It’s a strange coincidence that France went so long without producing a Formula 1 winner, only for two to come along in less than a year. Both of which are now racing side-by-side at Alpine.

Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2022
Ocon has been known to fight hard with team mates

Gasly and Esteban Ocon could hardly share more in common. Both young, talented and French. The duo rose through the junior formulae in near parallel. They broke into F1 just over a year apart from each other and both lost their drives in and had to rebuild themselves before scoring a popular out-of-the-blue race victory.

Much has been made of their personal history and infamously frosty relationship dating back to their childhood karting days as rivals. But both have appeared more than willing to bury the hatchet since their future together was confirmed – demonstrated by the pair hanging out at a recent NBA exhibition game in Paris with Charles Leclerc.

Whatever efforts Gasly and Ocon are putting in to make a fresh start of 2023, their intra-team rivalry is destined to be one of the most fascinating of the season. Having achieved much the same as each other with near identical levels of experience, logic suggests this could well be the closest-matched driving pairing on the grid.

Ocon heads into his fourth year at the team fresh from beating Alonso in the championship – a claim not many of his previous team mates can boast. However, Ocon benefited from Alonso suffering the lion’s share of reliability problems between the two, and his highs through the year did not quite match those of his team mate. He was ultimately fortunate to come out ahead, despite doing a better job of keeping pace with Alonso than many predicted.

Gasly arrives at Alpine having spent the last two years as the clear senior driver at AlphaTauri over Yuki Tsunoda. A career season in 2021 saw him regularly breach the top five far more than he likely should have, but the technical regulations changes did him no favours and he endured a frustrating year in an underwhelming car.

Gasly will also be wary of Ocon’s pattern of clashing with his team mate. He and Sergio Perez came too close for comfort far too often at Force India. Then, Alonso was openly berating Ocon’s conduct over team radio at the end of last season, prompted by several incidents where he felt Ocon was racing him beyond the line of respectability.

But both drivers are intelligent enough to recognise the only way they’ll be able to fight for more victories is by putting the team’s development above their own squabbles. With driver after driver admitting they expect the field to be closer and more competitive in 2023 than last year, Alpine need to be on top of their game if they are at least to hold onto their fourth place this season, let alone challenge the top three teams for podiums or even victories.

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