Only two teams have won a Formula One world championship since 2010: Red Bull and Mercedes. Go back one year further, to 2009, and both titles were won by Brawn GP, which was independent at the time but then morphed into the Mercedes F1 the following year. During the last 14 years, ten other teams (many of which have changed ownership in that period) have raced in F1, yet none of them — even the mighty Ferrari — have secured a title in that period. Statistically speaking, F1’s winner’s circle has never been smaller.
So how does a team break out of F1’s intensely competitive midfield and fight for championships? Alpine, McLaren and Aston Martin all have aspirations of doing so (with Audi set to join them in 2026), yet championship success has never looked harder to come by for a team outside F1’s « big three ».
Alpine was closest in 2022, albeit still 587 points shy of champions Red Bull in the final standings, McLaren has the most recent history of fighting for titles, albeit over ten years ago, Audi will have a clean slate in 2026, albeit with a huge amount of catching up to do, and Aston Martin … well, Aston Martin is arguably the best placed team to make it happen.
The Silverstone-based outfit, which started life as the Jordan F1 team in 1991, has gone through multiple identities and ownerships during its time on the grid, but has never been as financially stable as it is right now. Its current consortium of owners, led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, have been on a recruitment drive since taking control in mid 2018, cherry-picking top engineers from rival teams as well as bringing former McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh back into the F1 fold as the team’s overarching boss.
In quick succession this year, BMW’s head of motorsport Mike Krack was installed as Aston Martin’s team principal, Red Bull’s head of aero Dan Fallows joined as technical director, Mercedes aero chief Eric Blandin was named as Aston Martin’s head of aero and Luca Furbatto joined from Alfa Romeo as engineering director.
The signings were big. The intent was clear.
Meanwhile, the physical manifestation of Stroll’s vision for Aston Martin has been taking shape in a muddy field in Northamptonshire. On a parcel of land sold to Stroll by the same farmer who cut a deal with Eddie Jordan in the late 1980s to provide the original plot for the team’s current factory, the first of three new factory buildings is nearing completion.
The imaginatively named Building 1 is already a mighty edifice that stands opposite the cattle sheds of the neighbouring Litchlake Farm, only twice as tall and roughly ten times as long. When it is completed in May, 2023, it will accommodate the vast majority of the team’s 650-person workforce, some of which are currently working out of a stack of temporary portacabins in the car park of the original Jordan factory.
The pace of change at Aston Martin will leave no room for sentimentality, and the original building commissioned by Jordan over three decades ago will be demolished within a week of the team moving out. In its place, Building 2 will be constructed to house the Aston Martin’s cafeteria, gym, conference centre and simulator. Building 3, currently a steel structure coming out of the ground at the very far end of the plot, will house the jewel in the new factory’s crown: the new wind tunnel. Team principal Krack is confident it will be the best in F1 when it comes online in 2024 and combined with improved manufacturing capabilities, one of the keys to future success.
Can Aston Martin close the gap?
Last year, F1 introduced a budget cap with the aim of closing the gap between F1’s big spenders and the rest of the field. The idea was to put the focus on efficiency and good ideas and limit a team’s ability to spend its way to the top by investing in truckloads of upgrades each year.
The early signs aren’t great, with Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes emerging as the only three race winners under F1’s new regulations in 2022, but the budget cap was always likely to take several years to level the playing field. The proof of the concept will come in a couple of years once the top teams have had their spending capped for several years and the others have had a chance to build up to the cap.
In that respect, the timing of Aston Martin’s new factory couldn’t be better. Whereas the factories of rival teams were designed when spending was free and easy, the plans for Aston Martin’s new base have factored in cost saving measures to the design and production process in the hope the team can gain as much performance as possible from each pound spent.
« For sure, with production you have the ability to make everything yourself but you also have the ability to decide do you buy or make it, and you can make it faster, » Krack says. « If you can make them also cheaper it means you can make more, and maybe one or two upgrades more due to time and due to financial reasons that you couldn’t do before, so I think it is a good step. »
Cost- and time-efficient upgrades will be key Aston Martin’s planned rise through the ranks, and Fallows believes the factory will facilitate that.
« Efficiency covers all of it, efficiency in terms of cost, time, one of the things that marks out a competitive team is its ability to turn things around quickly, to go from design to reality in the shortest possible time, so there’s great leaps forward you can make in efficiency with that type of facility, and obviously in a cost cap world anything you can do to maximise efficiency of the cost of those parts is worth doing. »
The new factory will not only see a significant step in the team’s manufacturing capability, it is also hoped it will bring about a complete change in its working culture. A central two-storey thoroughfare will run through Building 1, with the entrances to all the main departments running off it. The manufacturing departments, such as composites and electronics, will be on the ground floor, while design offices, HR, marketing and communications will be on the upper floor.
The design office is the most impressive space in the building (perhaps only second to Stroll’s corner office with adjoining balcony) and will take up a large proportion of the upstairs level. It will be completely open-plan with the aim of facilitating an easier flow of communication between engineers, which should in turn allow ideas to be exchanged more freely. Those involved in the project believe it could be « a gamechanger ».
« The fact you can talk to people without having to arrange meetings — it facilitates dialogue easily, » team principal Krack says. « Right now, you either need to pick up the phone or organise something and sometimes this is a natural barrier of more exchange, and the other thing is logistics, to bring stuff from left to right or from A to B it will be massively easier, so from that point of view I agree with using the name gamechanger, for team dynamics and logistics.
Fallows, who will be overseeing the output of the design office, agrees.
« It’s a factor of the small factory here and we have these modular buildings where we have some people who are not necessarily designing part of the car at the moment but they are very connected to our design process and having them not in the same room just makes it slightly more difficult to communicate with them, » he says.
« I’ve been in a big open plan office before with the ability to walk around and talk to people easily and it makes a huge difference in terms of those interactions and particularly those serendipitous chats where you can have a chat with somebody about one thing and you end up talking about other things and they often end up being the most creative conversations and that’s what we’re trying to build really. »
The best wind tunnel in F1…
Of course, the new factory is not going to change the team’s competitiveness from one day to the next. Aston Martin started the 2022 season at the back of the grid and only managed to recover to seventh in the standings by the end of the year — tied on points with Alfa Romeo in sixth.
Although the performance of the car tracked in the right direction over the course of the year, it was still a long way from Stroll’s lofty ambitions of fighting for titles. Realistically, that goal is not going to be achieved for several seasons and not before the new wind tunnel is up and running in 2024.
« I think the target for the wind tunnel is to be online in the middle of 2024, so we’re hoping that will have at least some contribution for the AMR25 (the 2025 car), » Fallows says. « I think depending on how the commissioning and things go, that will be the first car where we’ll be able to have a significant impact with the new tunnel.
« In terms of the factory, that’s coming online next year and we’re hoping the car prior to that will see the benefit of the new factory as well. »
Aston Martin is currently using Mercedes’ wind tunnel in Brackley — eight miles west along the fast-moving A43. The facility, which was installed during Honda’s tenure at the team in the mid-2000s, is top level in F1 and has been a key factor in creating all of Mercedes’ championship winning cars between 2014 and 2021. It’s a good baseline, but those involved in the construction of Aston Martin’s wind tunnel are confident it will raise the game again.
« We’re fortunate enough to be testing in the Mercedes wind tunnel which is a very high quality facility, so we need to make sure our new facility is giving results consistent with those, » Fallows said. « That does take a certain amount of time, but there are things we can do to speed up that process, and obviously the target is to get in there as soon as we can.
« There’s no doubt it’ll be a world class facility, and having access to that 24/7 if required is obviously very important. Having your own facility means you can do other experiments as well, which is invaluable, and it’s something we don’t necessarily have the luxury of doing at the moment when we’re sharing a tunnel at another team. »
Catching the best in F1
Fallows is an ideal recruit for Aston Martin as he comes from the team that has dominated the most recent season in F1. When he informed Red Bull he was leaving the team, he was put on projects outside of F1, but his knowledge of how the team works, and how it came up with the concept for this year’s all-conquering RB18, is invaluable to Aston Martin.
« There are a number of reasons why Red Bull are good, » he says. « They have managed to over a period of years iron out issues in every aspect of the team, whether that be race team, manufacturing facilities, the design office, and a lot of building that kind of success is making sure there are no areas where you have substantial weaknesses.
« They are an incredibly strong team and I do have an experience of what it takes to win races and win championships, and the key message is that, you have to make sure there are no holes that could compromise your performance as you go along.
« But the important thing for us is to make sure we don’t just replicate what our competitors are doing. We don’t believe that is going to help us overtake the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, and we have to develop our own way of doing things.
« That does take time, but we’ve got a hugely ambitious group of people, and one of the things about seeing the new factory come together is it demonstrates this momentum, this wish to kind of accelerate the process of moving up the grid and starting to get into a winning situation, and I think that’s what’s going to really help us get there, is this passion and motivation and belief that we’ll get there eventually. »
The idea is not to throw out what made the small Silverstone-based team great in recent years. On several occasions in the past five years, it has emerged as the « best of the rest » behind the big three, but its ambitions were always limited by a lack of money. Now it has that key ingredient, albeit under a budget cap, as well as expertise from the top teams in the business to make it work.
« I was delighted with the level of the technical conversations I’ve had ever since I’ve got here, » Fallows says. « This team has grown from something relatively small in size to… you’ve seen the ambition, the size we’ve now grown to and want to get to in terms of how we’re operating and developing the car, and that is a journey.
« What I’ve seen I can add value to, and Eric Blandin who has joined at the same time [from Mercedes], we can add that sort of clarity of purpose, clarity of direction, and that’s the thing that we’re building on.
« But what I have seen is a passionate and talented group of people, some of whom have been here a very long time and have a huge amount of experience, so the main thing for us is to make sure we draw on that experience and passion and don’t destroy that at the same time as trying to grow into a race-winning team. »
Lots of teams talk a big game, but five-year plans of reaching the front of the grid are so much more convincing when they include a new factory coming out of the ground with the promise of improved facilities and efficiencies. Only time will tell if it all pays off, but if Aston Martin fails to close the gap to the top three, it will not be for a lack of trying.