Just before the end of the 2023 Formula 1 season, Aston Martin made a significant announcement - outside investors were coming in for the first time since Lawrence Stroll’s consortium bought the team.
It was timed for the eve of the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, the crown jewel (sorry, Monaco) of Liberty Media-era F1. But the timing was interesting for another reason, as it followed quite intense speculation about Stroll’s intentions.
There had been unsubstantiated rumours for a while that, five years on from buying Force India’s assets and creating what would morph into what we now know as Aston Martin, Stroll was looking for a way out. That coincided with questions about his son Lance’s future after a rough run through the middle of the season.
Then news dropped of Arctos Partners’ investment in the team, with the value unspecified beyond confirmation it is just a minority shareholding and reporting from the likes of the Financial Times and Reuters that it valued Aston Martin’s F1 team at around $1billion.
Even minority investments trigger questions about whether it is the start of an exit strategy for the original owner. Given the rumours that preceded the Arctos investment - which may well have emerged from a misunderstanding of that planned deal and how it valued the team - that was inevitably the case here.
But “this is the opposite”, Aston Martin’s managing director of commercial and marketing Jefferson Slack told The Race.
“Lawrence is not a seller,” he said.
“If you had somebody that wanted to come in [and say], ‘that's my step, I'm gonna buy this percentage, then I'm gonna buy control’ - [Stroll is the] wrong guy to talk to.”
That’s why Stroll’s consortium remains the majority shareholder and that looks like it will be the case for the long-term.
“These guys [Arctos] would never buy a majority,” Slack said.
“They would never want to buy this, it’s not what they do. So it's exactly the opposite.
“They are the last people you would sell to if you were trying to exit.”
At the time of the announcement, Stroll’s involvement was specified as a reason for Arctos committing to the Aston Martin investment. And Slack, who light-heartedly described Stroll as “not a passive guy”, reckoned there is still so much to do with the team’s evolution into a would-be title-challenging force that Stroll remains very much at the heart of the project.
“This is constant, it never ends,” said Slack. “So, he has plenty to worry about and think about.
“Lawrence is not bored, trust me!”
Stroll has made everything happen for this organisation since the formation of Racing Point midway through 2018.
The takeover he led of Aston Martin Lagonda facilitated rebranding this team as the Aston Martin works entry, he has set the ambitious target of fighting for world titles in the next few years, and greenlit massive investments in talent – like lead driver Fernando Alonso, Group CEO Martin Whitmarsh and technical director Dan Fallows - as well as huge infrastructure projects such as the new factory and windtunnel.
And Stroll himself declared in a New York Times interview that he wouldn’t have dumped hundreds of millions on a new headquarters and hiring spree if he was about to disappear with his tail between his legs - stating he plans to run the car company and the F1 team for "many years" to come.
"You don’t go spending hundreds of millions of pounds, building the greatest new Formula 1 campus and hiring 400 of the greatest employees if you’re about to leave the business," Stroll said.
"It could not be any further from the truth that I have any interest in ever not being the majority shareholder of this team for a very long time, and it is the same with the road car company.
"I’m not going anywhere."
There has been no doubting the commitment so far, which Stroll and consortium colleagues have financed. And prospective buyers or investors will have been knocking on the door a while given the boom F1 has enjoyed in recent years. So why sell now, even if it is just a portion of the team?
“It’s a good question in terms of the timing,” said Slack.
“Part of it was that the team is in the right place for that right now. Lawrence has put together an organisation that's grown. If you'd [tried to do] this a few years ago, we would not have been where we are today.
“We’ve hired new people, we've opened the new campus, we’ve got Honda engines coming in [Aston Martin will have works engines in 2026], we’ve got the windtunnel.
“In addition to having this incredible brand, they'll look and say that's a team that has got the pieces in place to win a world championship, which is where the top investor wants to go.
“You’d rather start with the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees rather than the Minnesota Twins [if you're buying into a Major League Baseball franchise]. What we have now is that. We feel that we've got the brand and the organisation to be with the top three or four teams in the world in Formula 1.
“That transformation had to happen.”
Essentially, Arctos wants in now, whereas a couple of years ago Aston Martin was not the same proposition, even though it was already building an impressive portfolio of partners, especially on the business-to-business side.
The on-track results were not there so, while the story was potentially a good one and the brand itself was appealing, its potential was a long way from being realised.
That has started to change in a big way in 2023, with Alonso’s eight podiums and a best-ever team points haul. But Stroll has always had bigger ambitions than that. He will want to see this project through, so on a personal level he is extremely unlikely to want to walk away.
But maybe he and his partners have been interested in bringing someone else in to help with the next phase - maybe through funding, but also other means.
“We see huge commercial opportunities because of their network, their access to best-in-class franchises, what those franchises do, people that those franchises know,” said Slack.
“It's a complete synergy. We didn't need the capital - it’s more the right time that somebody's going to recognise where we're going and want to be a part of that journey.
“This wasn't a seed investment. This is like a pre-IPO round. So we had to get to the pre IPO-round for somebody to look at it that way, rather than if you'd looked at us as Racing Point or the first year in Aston Martin.
“That's why I think it's the right time, with the right people, and Lawrence was open to it.”
Getting outside investment has simply become feasible, not just fashionable. Investment companies have been queueing up - MSP with McLaren, RedBird with Alpine, now Arctos and Aston Martin. It’s a sign of F1’s growth as well as what those teams offer individually.
Slack said that eight of the nine three-year commercial deals Aston Martin did in 2021 have been renewed, despite two-thirds of that time being spent being quite uncompetitive. “We mitigate that performance a bit by having a bunch of other things that work for people,” he said.
A big factor in that is Aston Martin as a brand. “And the brand isn’t going anywhere,” Slack insisted. Meanwhile, Aston Martin F1 is the house that Stroll built.
So, it would be unwise to underestimate how important it is for him to remain involved as well.
Ultimately, Stroll doesn’t look like someone on the brink of selling and Aston Martin isn’t acting like a team on the verge of a major rebrand in a new owner’s image. That might change in time but it doesn't necessarily have to if the team is on the path that Stroll intends it to be on.
And 2023, while disappointing in terms of the team's decline in competitiveness from start to finish, was overall a big step forward - which has an impact on what is going on off-track, too.
“It's validated the story we’ve told - saying we're on the journey to win world championships and be competitive," said Slack. "It's backed the words with reality and action.
“So, it's made it easier [to attract partners to the team], for sure. It's still very competitive, but it's made it easier. And with the Honda deal, people that follow Formula 1 understand the importance of a works team, it’s the best engine in the world right now with the best team in the world.
“So that's another thing. Put all those things together and it’s much easier when we're performing well - or at least we look like we're heading in the right direction.”
And while more partners might be joining for that journey, it looks like it'll still be Stroll at the helm of the team for the foreseeable future. Exactly where he leads it is another matter entirely.