Squeezing into the passenger side of the Alpine A110 GT4, I await the instructor who will whip us around the more than two-mile circuit at the private Concours Club in Opa-Locka, Fla. But catching a glimpse of the tall, slender pilot just prior to the helmet concealing his visage, it becomes instantly apparent that this will be no ordinary hot lap. “Esteban, is that you?” I enquire incredulously. His only reply is a question of his own: “Ready?” I soon find myself clapping while simultaneously trying to find breath as the BWT Alpine F1 Team’s Esteban Ocon hits the throttle and displays the focus, control, and aggressiveness that has placed him on the short list of world’s greatest racers.
French marque Alpine, a subsidiary of Renault, is far from a household name in the U.S. That’s understandable, since its cars are currently not sold in the country. Its motorsport arm, the BWT Alpine F1 Team, is more well-known to Americans, primarily due to the Netflix sensation Drive to Survive, but has only been competing under that moniker since 2021. This season, though, Alpine plans to amplify its presence stateside, both with track results and by building anticipation for its production cars by teasing the possibility that they could reach the North American market in the not-so-distant future. And what better megaphone for its message than the 2023 Miami Grand Prix?
Yet despite it being early in the season, the results of the first four races were making the team’s intentions more challenging. When asked if Alpine’s race car was where it was expected to be at this point, CEO Laurent Rossi answered quickly. “No, and we know it because we missed our development targets during the winter . . . and then we’ve made a couple of operational blunders, which is not what we are used to . . . so when you compound a relatively lower-than-needed performance and poor execution, you are where we are.”
Where Alpine found itself going into Miami was with only eight total points based on the cumulative standings of Ocon and his new teammate, Pierre Gasly, who came over from competitor AlphaTauri. “We should have three or four times this amount,” says Rossi bluntly. “It’s already tough competition with Mercedes and Ferrari, and on top of that, Aston Martin leapfrogged the three of us . . . we can’t relax at all.” That jump of Aston’s is due to its driver Fernando Alonso capturing the third spot in all but one of the races leading up to this past weekend. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Ocon and Gasly had failed to finish in the top 10 in both the Australian and Azerbaijan Grand Prix contests in April.
As with any apex competitor, though, 27-year-old Gasly was not focused on the rearview but the road ahead. “This weekend and Imola [Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, on May 21] will be important weekends for us in terms of confirming the upgrades we brought on the car—making sure Baku [Azerbaijan Grand Prix] was a one-off,” he stated on Thursday.
It was an assessment echoed by team principal Otmar Szafnauer prior to the final practice sessions on Friday. “We, unfortunately, had an accident with both drivers in Australia, and the next race we had two reliability issues,” explained Szafnauer. Of the latter, he added, “What we have to do is fix the root cause so it never happens again, and then move forward.”
That move forward began with the Miami International Autodrome, the 3.36-mile circuit with Hard Rock Stadium as its centerpiece. Both drivers acknowledged the unique difficulties it presented. “Miami is extremely tough due to the conditions,” said Gasly, “it’s really hot outside and the tarmac is really dark, so that means the track temperature is high, which makes it difficult for the tires.” For 26-year-old Ocon (shown on track in opening image), “the challenge is really from turn 12 to 15; it’s quite hard to navigate through that and get the right line . . . in comparison to other tracks, that’s probably the biggest challenge.”
The serpentine gauntlet got the better of some big names during Saturday’s qualifying session, as Lewis Hamilton—of Mercedes-AMG Petronas—missed advancing to the final round and ended up in the 13th position on the starting grid, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen also uncharacteristically struggled his way to ninth. Then there was Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who, in the third session, spun out and hit the wall, triggering a red flag that ended qualifying one minute and 36 seconds early. The starting grid was thus set with Red Bull’s Sergio “Checo” Pérez in pole position, followed by Aston’s Fernando Alonso, and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. As for Alpine, Gasly would start fifth and Ocon eighth.
“The result is pretty good,” said Szafnauer after Saturday’s action. “As you can imagine, Pierre was happy being fifth and Esteban was a little disappointed that he didn’t get his lap in, as he was hoping to be higher up . . . it probably averages out to where we should be.”
Adding to the uncertainty of how Sunday would unfold was the precipitation earlier in the morning and lingering clouds that threatened to empty again at any moment, though worries of that had evaporated by race time. The stadium and surrounds teemed with attendees taking advantage of a myriad viewing options to choose from, depending on how much they were willing to invest. As with last year, there was the “marina” around turns 7 and 8, where personal yachts were parked as spectator platforms. But perhaps most impressive was the Concours Club’s own pavilion for members and guests, a temporary, multistory enclave with two swimming pools and ample cocktail lounges accented with commissioned art—all directly flanking turn 3.
“The fact that the global pinnacle of motorsport hosts an event right up the street from us; it’s an absolutely imperative part of the club’s DNA that we’re here,” says Concours Club president Aaron Weiss. When asked why he chose that particular section of track for the elaborate installation, he explained, “It was proximity. It’s on the inside of the track, and because we’re at the apex, the cars are so close to the wall. We designed the deck and stadium seating so you could lean over and look into the cockpit, feel the noise, and smell the exhaust.” That intimate accessibility ran roughly $12,500 per person for the three days.
The most obvious display of exclusivity, however, was the grid walk just prior to the start of the race. This year saw A-listers like Tom Cruise and Queen Latifah strolling amidst the cars before LL Cool J and Will i. Am introduced the drivers. But as soon as the glitterati left the grid, it was game time.
After the formation lap, the collective engine soundtracks reached a crescendo as the 20-car field fired off on the first of 57 laps. By lap 13, Perez was holding fast in first while Verstappen moved from ninth to fourth, Gasly fell to sixth, Ocon to ninth, and Hamilton remained in the back half of the pack. On lap 48, Verstappen, who had been systematically passing all in his way, usurped the lead from Pérez and never relinquished it.
The two Red Bull drivers had distanced themselves decidedly from the rest of the cadre, confirming the dominance they’ve displayed both this season and last. As the checkered flag waived, it was Verstappen and Pérez in first and second, with Alonso securing yet another podium in third. Alpine’s outing earned it a total of six more points from Gasly and Ocon, who finished eighth and ninth, respectively.
After back-to-back races with nothing to show for it, Alpine needed the momentum shift Miami provided, and now has the same constructors’ total as McLaren. Ultimately, what Ocon told Robb Report heading into the weekend could be applied to where Alpine is in both Formula 1 and its U.S. production-car plans. “We are trying to push forward as much as we can,” said the racer, “but we’re not where we want yet.”
Ready to start summer in high gear? There’s still time to join Robb Report’s 2023 California Coastal Rally, June 4 through 8. For more information, or to register, visit here.