Is the Aston Martin Formula 1 team really in the top-three mix after Bahrain testing, potentially pitched somewhere between Ferrari and Mercedes?
That was the view of rivals and pundits who crunched the numbers after the three days of running at Sakhir.
The car looked good from the start, but it was a race distance undertaken by Fernando Alonso late on the final day that caught the eye, the Spaniard running a medium/hard/medium tyre combination that saw him get faster and faster.
It was a strong conclusion to a test that began badly when the AMR23 stopped on track and triggered a red flag right at the start of Thursday’s opening session due to a typical test day electrical niggle.
After that pretty much everything went to plan, at least in terms of the job list, which had the obvious focus of honing the AMR23 while also allowing Alonso to get to know the car and team better.
If there was a negative it was the absence of Lance Stroll, who as Alonso himself was keen to flag would have provided vital feedback on what’s changed from last year’s car.
The loss of that reference and the need to get reserve driver Felipe Drugovich up to speed on race preparations in case he has to be called upon for this weekend meant that it was not quite an optimum programme, but it wasn’t far off.
“We had our plans of what we wanted to do over the three days,”said team principal Mike Krack after the test ended. “We had a little bit of an issue giving the first red flag of the test, and everybody looks at each other, ‘Oh, this is not a good start.’
“I think we did a bit more than 350 laps over the three days, which is quite good. So from that point of view, we are quite happy that we managed to complete all what we wanted to complete.
"You always want to do much more than you can do in in three days. You have a huge list of requirements, of requests from all kinds of departments, and you have to prioritise them. The list does not become shorter. Each time you have done something, another topic comes up.
“So you can never say that you are finished. You are always having questions. But this is also the nice bit about F1, that you always have to explore other directions, new Ideas and stuff like that.”
Performance as always is the key parameter, and while Aston didn’t figure very high on headline times – Alonso was ninth overall with a lap set on Saturday with the C4 tyres – it was that final long run that was significant.
Despite the evidence on the timing screens, Krack urged a note of caution, suggesting that the AMR23 was flattered by circumstances, and especially the fact that a well-rubbered track had helped Alonso’s final run.
“The race simulation was certainly not bad,” he acknowledged. “But we must also not forget that the track conditions were really good. You had a lot of rubber because there were other teams doing new tyres a lot of times, also with soft rubber.
“And this is helping when you do a race simulation. So again, it is nice to have good long runs, but still you need to really put them into the right context, and let's not start dreaming.”
Krack may have tried to add an asterisk to the performance, but nevertheless the consensus around the paddock was that Aston is in the ballpark.
“Yeah, but these dynamics that you can sometimes get, like someone says it's very good,” Krack noted. “And then someone says it's good, and it's very good… It's like when the word goes around the children at school. So we I think we need to keep our feet on the ground.
“Our expectations are always high, and this time of year, everybody wants to do well and talk others into some roles. We are realists. We have clear objectives, that is improve compared to where we were last year and then we will see."
Krack may be keen to downplay expectations, but there’s no question that Aston Martin has made a big step in the last 12 months.
Last year’s AMR22 was designed with flexibility built-in to allow a change of concept should it turn out that there was a better alternative to the original choice, and that’s exactly what happened.
The car improved over the season and was very competitive in most of the later races, but there were still some compromises around that original concept choice.
The AMR23 has been developed under technical director Dan Fallows and his fellow new recruits, including former Mercedes aero man Eric Blandin. As such it pretty much represents a clean sheet of paper design, an attempt to make a significant leap forward in one go.
The team was determined to start 2023 with the best possible package for the obvious reason that development will eat into the cost cap, so why not throw everything you can into the launch spec?
“That's something that the group around Dan has really approached in a different way with the AMR23, to have an aggressive approach,” said Krack.
“Because in the cost cap world you cannot afford, what we have tried to achieve last year, that you have to improve really, really over the year, because the race intensity is high.
“The money you have to develop the car is really not high. So you have to start with a good baseline. And I think that was one of the objectives.
"The main things in F1 are always the same, where do you improve? So you have to work on aerodynamics in the first place, you have to provide good feedback to the drivers, so that they that the car is predictable, that it’s benign.
“So these are all areas that you concentrate on. And then you have to have a good mechanical platform.”
Alonso’s priority was to explore the limits of set-up, try avenues that there won’t always be time to sample on hectic race weekends, and generally get to understand the car.
“The positive thing here with Fernando was he tried several things, basically to fill his toolbox,” Krack explained.
“He tried things where maybe sometimes he would say, this is not the right thing to do now, but it is something that he wanted to have the information on, because he knows that maybe in Melbourne he might need something like this, or in another race track, you might still need something like that.
“So it was about understanding what you have at your disposal from a car point of view, a set-up point of view. And it's something that over the days he really developed. And I think he has a better answer now, or a better feeling of what he has to do.”
Alonso is pumped up, fully motivated, and thus far very happy with his decision to jump ship from Alpine and join Aston. He acknowledged that it had been useful few days, with a lot of work done.
“The car felt good all three days,” he said after the test. “We've been experimenting a little bit with very different routes on set-ups. And we found always positives, these new routes.
“So there is a clear indication that we need to change philosophy and many things on this car, compared to last year's car. And that, obviously is a concern in a way because we will need couple of races to optimise everything.”
Crucially the car seems to do what it is supposed to do, which gives Alonso something to work with.
“I think so far the car was responding well for the set-up changes,” said the Spaniard. “It was doing what we were expecting. The only thing is that the baseline set-up from last year is pretty much useless, because we operate in a very different window with this car.
“So that's very challenging now for the engineers, but they were very brave, very creative with different ideas in the last few days, and we found new ways to set up the car. We have very talented people in the team, so I trust them, and we will get more and more productive."
Fallows and Blandin have added some extra knowledge on the design side, but the core of the race team is still compromised of guys who go back to Force India days, and who have always been adept at extracting the maximum potential from the package they had.
Now they may have their hands on the most competitive car they’ve had in years, and all concerned know how to make the most of it having waited a long time for the pieces to fall into place.
“First of all, we are a very good and very experienced team, Team Silverstone," said Krack. “T it is not the first year that we are that we are doing this.
"People have learned a lot from last year. People are very humble, as a team, we are humble people, we are not coming with big with big words, we have never been.
“From that point of view the expectations are, let's try to improve, and then we see what is the outcome – because you cannot predict it anyway."