It is a truth universally acknowledged – in the world of Formula 1 anyway – that Lance Stroll is clearly not in the same position that any other driver employed by a frontrunning team and with his kind of F1 record would find themselves in.
A one-time polesitter and three-time podium finisher in F1, Stroll has in his possession one of F1’s best cars this season in the Aston Martin AMR23 but is yet to bring it onto the podium and is being outscored by 80 points by team-mate Fernando Alonso.
There have been mitigating circumstances – as team-mate Alonso has been keen to point out for a driver he had declared a possible future world champion – but it’s still an overall sample of results that normally wouldn’t just raise questions about the driver continuing beyond the current year, but potentially even raise the spectre of a mid-season split.
In Stroll’s case, this hasn’t happened, and his father Lawrence Stroll’s position as Aston Martin’s chairman means it isn’t a development anyone is particularly expecting.
But would that change if Aston’s rapid ascent continues and thrusts it into the title contention Stroll Sr is on record as desiring? Would the current state of events be tenable? This was the main topic of discussion on the latest edition of The Race F1 Podcast.
Now, the hypothetical question pre-supposes that not only does Aston’s rise go on, but that the younger Stroll does not take a big step forward. That kind of thing can’t be a surefire bet, especially for a 24-year-old who in 2017 was – and remains – the second-youngest driver to ever start an F1 grand prix.
But it feels only logical to describe Stroll as a known quantity. He was already into triple-digit race starts by the end of 2021, and is knocking on the door of the all-time top 50. He has more starts than Alex Albon and Yuki Tsunoda combined.
And thought there have been undeniable highlights in his F1 career so far, it is also true that he finds himself with a top-drawer AMR23 even while there’s an argument to be made that he’s never conclusively outperformed an F1 team-mate over a season. The closest he came was being more or less level with rookie Sergey Sirotkin in the depressing Williams FW41 and running Sebastian Vettel pretty close in Vettel’s first season at Aston Martin.
But while Red Bull’s superb start to the current ground effect era means Aston Martin isn’t in the title mix yet, it is vying for the best-ever constructors’ finish for ‘Team Silverstone’ – and Stroll’s 80-point deficit to Alonso is already obvious as a potential impediment.
“He’s not keeping, at the moment, I think, anyone off the grid that should be on the grid. There are a couple of seats that he would, I think, legitimately and objectively do a better job than the incumbent driver, for whatever reason,” Ben Anderson theorised on the podcast.
“It’s just that we’ve entered in 2023 the situation where he is below the level of the car he’s driving, and to quite an extreme degree. And I think Aston Martin can get away with it this year – well, obviously it can get away with it because his dad’s the owner, but independent of that they’re overachieving, they’re surprising themselves, they’re doing much better than they thought they would.
Stroll’s average qualifying gap to team-mates at Team Silverstone
2019 0.239s slower than Perez
2020 0.160s slower than Perez
2021 0.091s slower than Vettel
2022 0.129s slower than Vettel
2023 0.274s slower than Alonso*
* so far, excluding Bahrain due to injury
“If anything, Stroll’s underperformance might help them in the Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions table!
“So if you want to find one justification for him, it’s in there, they can get some more windtunnel time by having an underperforming second car.
“But in a tighter championship battle – you know, Mercedes are underperforming, but they seem to be turning things around; Ferrari are massively underperforming; Alpine, I think they have a quick car, but they have executed the first eight races terribly, on balance, so there’s not really the pressure from behind that there probably should’ve been.
“So he can hide a bit. But in a more normal season, Stroll would be massively found out, and so would Aston. And that can be the difference. In an alternate universe where the other teams are not underperforming, they’re going to be easily fourth or fifth rather than fighting for second.
“At that point, regardless of the family dynamic, the team ownership and management has to look at the second driver and think, ‘We need to make a change’. Any other Formula 1 team would be doing that in the current situation.”
But is that potential constructors’ underperformance something Stroll Sr has already accepted for one reason or another – especially as that’ll be easier to do these days with the cost cap and with the ATR scale?
“You go, ‘This is my son, I love my son, I pay a lot to make this team first-rate, I pay a lot for the first driver. OK, we’re potentially sacrificing world constructors’ positions here because my son is not a top-10 Formula 1 driver and everybody else in these other cars is. I’ll cover the shortfall. Whatever. For individual glories, we have the world drivers’ championships, I’m going to pay for the benchmark driver, he’s going to deliver me results’,” Valentin Khorounzhiy hypothesised.
“I think to a certain point that does kind of work! It’s extremely unsatisfying from a sporting point of view but I understand it on a very boring human level.”
Publicly, Stroll Sr has backed his son as being world champion material – but the case for that across 130 starts isn’t the strongest.
And if that evidence continues to bear out, does it really become a question of whether Aston’s championship ambitions are compatible with keeping Stroll Jr, as, if his performance levels stay as they are, the team could be missing out on potential upgrades – drivers it would also do well to keep out of rivals’ hands.
“I think the key aspect is, whether Lawrence Stroll’s desire – and it is a firm desire and commitment – to turn Aston Martin into a world championship-winning Formula 1 team, that’s what he wans to do… At some point his own desire to win with that team will have to trump his desire to prop up his son’s career,” argued Anderson.
“Because I don’t see how the two marry together, I can’t see Lance Stroll becoming a world championship-winning Formula 1 driver, except in a very, very, very rare and unusual circumstance.
“‘There are also other drivers who could come on the market who would be a definite upgrade. Lando Norris could be available by then, Alex Albon’s doing a great job at Williams and could be ready for another crack at a top team. Oscar Piastri’s having a very, very good rookie season, getting much closer to Norris than Daniel Ricciardo could in the same car.
“There are going to be drivers available who are a definite upgrade – and at that point, once Aston Martin’s come out of this kind of honeymoon period, the driver will inevitably become an elephant in the room that you can’t ignore.
“Stroll’s got time still to progress, but I think based on everything we’ve seen over the first six and a bit seasons, I don’t think he’s going to get in 2025-26 to the level where he isn’t the biggest problem that Aston Martin has in order to take that final step.”
Anderson also cited future engine partner Honda’s publicly acknowledged interest in Yuki Tsunoda being considered, amid the Japanese driver’s best season in F1 yet.
But who’s to say that Aston Martin must be constructors’ champions to be champions? Ultimately, when most F1 fans are asked which team prevailed in 1994, they are likely to say Benetton by virtue of its world drivers’ title with Michael Schumacher – even though the second car’s minimal scoring meant the constructors’ crown went to Williams.
“Ultimately you need one driver to win the WDC, don’t you?” wondered Khorounzhiy. “And it doesn’t necessarily have to be your son.
“And right now the sort of WDC driver at Aston Martin is Fernando Alonso. A few years down the line, if it comes to that, you mention Norris, who could be a WDC driver. I think a lot of people are getting very excited about the idea of Charles Leclerc being fed up with Ferrari and heading to Aston Martin, in which case he would become their WDC driver. Can you win a world championship for Aston Martin while having Leclerc/Norris in one car and your son in the other? I think yeah!
“I think you can talk yourself into it.”
Certainly, it would be doable if the car is a juggernaut ala the current Red Bull, as the energy drink giant would probably still win the WDC as a one-car operation this year. But what about when it’s closer?
“If you’re doing battle, a close battle, with another team that’s similarly-paced, if on a good day you win and Lance is fourth or whatever, on your less good days you might finish behind two drivers from another team. The drivers’ championship can’t be taken entirely in isolation. In a close fight that does make quite a big difference,” warned podcast host Edd Straw.
Ultimately though, it seems inherently obvious that for an F1 outfit with this sky-high level of ambition being joined at the hip to a driver is not ideal.
“Most teams will look at their driver line-up – and every so often you get these situations where there’s a big imbalance, and some try to go for a clear number one and a supporting act for various reasons, sometimes financial, sometimes political, sometimes to do with the chemistry,” said Anderson.
“But most often you’re looking for the two very best drivers you can get.
“And there are big teams in play, and underperforming teams like McLaren who’ve got very good, well-balanced driver pairings, they’re just waiting for the other stuff to come into play and hoping they can hang on to those drivers long enough.
“Aston Martin has a weakness in its driver line-up, and it’s getting away with it now. I don’t see that it can get away with that forever.
“Because the other teams are too good.”