Lance Stroll’s disappointing Q1 elimination in qualifying for the Qatar Grand Prix extended a poor run of recent results going back four races.
And while it’s not unusual for his reaction to such disappointments to lead to a set of monosyllabic post-session media interviews, the way he handled this particular disappointment seemed on the extreme end of the scale.
Stroll hasn’t escaped Q1 since that wild wet/dry qualifying session at Zandvoort just after the summer break. He hasn’t been in Q3 since the wet Friday session at Spa. At Monza he qualified slowest of all after missing all of Friday practice. At Singapore he crashed so heavily at the end of Q1 he skipped the race completely. At Suzuka he missed out on Q2 by a couple of tenths on a weekend when Aston Martin wasn’t especially competitive - and his race lasted only 20 laps before a wing failure forced him to retire.
In Qatar, after a single, wind-affected practice session on a very dusty track surface, Stroll qualified only 18th, more than 1.1 seconds slower than Fernando Alonso - who was third fastest in Q1.
Stroll lost most of his time by being significantly slower than Alonso through the tight Turn 6 left-hander and along the following straight, plus a significant deficit in minimum speed through the high-speed sweeps of Turns 12-14.
This run of disappointment/underperformance/bad luck would perturb any driver. Stroll is not the first to show anger after a particularly bad session. Throwing the steering wheel from the car is ill-advised but a fairly common outburst in F1.
Shoving one of your colleagues in the back of the team’s garage is definitely crossing a line - but drivers have been known to smash helmets, throw their kit down or even shrug off being manhandled by marshals in this kind of scenario.
The point is not to excuse Stroll’s behaviour - it was petulant and revealed a worrying lack of the sort of emotional control and poise that elite sport demands of its athletes. But at the same time, as Stroll’s current team-mate Fernando Alonso has pointed out several times before, F1 is an adrenaline-fuelled competition and as such it makes it difficult for drivers to maintain perfect composure in moments of high stress - whether that be over team radio in the car or, in this case, immediately after jumping out of it.
Stroll’s post-session remarks to FOM’s broadcast team were also especially curt.
Q: Lance, we saw frustration from you on the TV screens, this obviously means so much to you - what are your emotions right now?
Stroll: Yeah, it’s s***.
Q: OK… sorry for the language there. Err, what is not clicking for you behind the wheel at the moment?
Stroll: I don’t know.
Q: And how does this change your mindset for the weekend - is it now a test session, are you going to go for it in the sprint?
Stroll: Keeping driving.
But again, this is not uncommon in F1. Lewis Hamilton is often in a bit of a funk after disappointing Fridays in Mercedes’ current diva; Kimi Raikkonen made a career out of answering such TV questions in the shortest and least-insightful manner he could muster; Kevin Magnussen too has this streak in him when it suits.
It’s very easy to get into a serious negative mental spiral when the setbacks mount almost incessantly and on top of that performance is lacking. Each can feed the other too - as we’ve seen this season with Sergio Perez - it can all be quite difficult to make sense of, especially in the heat of the moment.
Aston Martin has defended Stroll’s performance level by saying the team owner’s son is capable of lapping within three tenths of Alonso and that this is an acceptable level to be at.
That last point is debatable for a team of Aston’s current standing, never mind its future ambition - although certainly, Alonso is among F1’s greatest-ever drivers, so by nature setting a particularly high bar for Stroll to try to reach.
In Japan, Stroll was comfortably within that three tenths margin Aston defined, but that weekend still ended in more disappointment - amid a particularly bad ongoing run of that.
When we sat down with Stroll on Thursday in Qatar, he seemed in good spirits and was actually unusually detailed in answering questions about the challenges he’s faced this season. He certainly didn’t adopt the manner of someone who doesn’t want to be here.
He talked about it being a “rough season” since the first few races. Obviously there was that cycling accident and a serious hand injury that compromised his pre-season preparations and early races, but Stroll also points to “a lot of stuff that has happened - reliability issues, unfortunate circumstances” while also admitting “also just speed at times has not really been there”.
That “unfortunate circumstances” comment refers specifically to the engine failure he suffered while running strongly in Saudi Arabia, the team “accidentally” fitting an old set of intermediates during qualifying in Canada - where Alonso qualified third and Stroll exited in Q2 - and the timing of a virtual safety car ruining what was otherwise one of his stronger weekends of this season in Austria - as well as the aforementioned wing failure after a strong start to his race in Japan.
“There’s definitely things in my control too, there’s things I can work on and improve to be faster,” Stroll conceded. “There’s definitely things I can improve on, things we can improve on as a group to be stronger, and now I’m just looking forward to the rest of the season and what we can do to finish strong.”
Stroll insisted under questioning that his motivation to compete in F1 remains. There have been times in the past where he has considered whether this life is really for him. Maybe this ebbs and flows too with the highs and lows - and when the lows are more frequent perhaps it makes it harder to muster the necessary self-motivation. But that wasn’t the impression he conveyed before this latest setback.
Stroll clearly enjoys racing - and Formula 1 is the ultimate place to seek that thrill. But it’s also a hard-nosed business, and questions repeatedly surface concerning whether it’s actually Lawrence Stroll who has the ultimate determination and ambition for Lance to succeed, rather than Lance himself.
“To race Formula 1 cars and go grand prix racing, it’s a great thing to do,” Stroll Jr said. “I’m looking forward to every weekend, especially coming here, it’s a great track. Sprint weekend, high grip I suspect with the new tarmac, last time we came here was high grip, super-fast track. Looking forward to every weekend.”
The core problem Stroll has is that he is at the mercy of the overall competitiveness of the equipment to a much greater degree than Alonso is. Alonso has not shied away from applying pressure to Aston as its competitiveness has dipped since the summer, but his relentless determination and incredible ability to improvise and hustle a car means he is still dragging performances and results out of a car that has been clearly overtaken by others in terms of pure performance.
So, Stroll is perhaps left overreaching for those extra tenths needed to progress through the stages of qualifying, rather than, in his words, having the “margin for error” that means you can build up more gradually and enjoy an easier ride.
“I think there’s also been a big element of that, just as a team, we’ve not been as competitive as early on in the season, that always makes life more challenging, just progressing through the weekend, getting yourself in a good start position for Sundays.
“Even with margin for errors in Q1, Q2, Q3, just having that buffer on other teams. We don’t have that as much now. We need to bring some upgrades to try and push to bring that [back] for the last part of the season.
“But I think there’s still areas as a driver and set-up and all that stuff - but we’re learning and I’m working with my engineers to try and be more competitive every single weekend.”
Stroll also feels the way Aston has developed its car through the season, in particular the misstep of the Canada upgrade that has taken a while to unpick, means Aston is still “trying to understand that and bring some stuff to the car in the season now to fix that and help the characteristic that we had earlier in the season where the car was more predictable and easier to drive, more forgiving.
“I think we’ve lost some of that. Just about understanding why because in theory we want to make the car go faster, we might have added overall downforce but made the car tricker to drive and stuff,” Stroll added.
“[Our] big goal is to get back to that place at the beginning of the year where I felt like we had a car that was just easier to drive, behaving better. Always nice when you have that feeling in the car.”
Stroll also referenced the general high mass of the current generation of F1 cars, so when the car snaps out of control “they’re a little bit harsher”. He mentioned too how “it’s never nice when a car steps out versus when it’s planted and you can add a bunch of front end and the rear is predictable and compliant, that’s always what you want in a car.”
Pirelli’s move to a different front tyre construction at the start of this season was done with the deliberate aim of making the current generation of F1 cars less understeer-y and Stroll feels the mid-season tyre update introduced at Silverstone “made everything more oversteer-y” again - though most F1 teams The Race spoke to said this made only a trivial difference to car handling, and according to Aston Martin’s performance director Tom McCullough the set-up changes needed to accommodate that mid-season tyre change were “ quite small”.
But certainly the cars are “more on the nose” this year, as Stroll puts it, and perhaps that is not suiting him. Clearly he is stuck in a bit of a negative spiral, and his reaction after Qatar qualifying suggests this complex picture of inconsistent performance and personal struggle is perhaps eating away at his confidence and self-assurance.
Either that, or it’s simply an ill-advised overreaction to a particularly bad performance that might easily be shrugged off with a bit of sleep and a few choice apologies behind the scenes.
Regardless, the big question now for Stroll is whether he can use the remaining races of this season to recover his composure and convince the doubters that he really belongs in a top-five F1 team.
Reigning Formula 2 champion Felipe Drugovich waits in the wings, so Aston is not short of a quality replacement should Stroll, or the team, decide enough is enough.