On Saturday in Turkey, Lance Stroll defied his critics by taking a stunning pole position, proving once and for all that he deserves his Racing Point seat regardless of the patronage of his team-owning father.
On Sunday in Turkey, Lance Stroll proved his critics right by turning 32 laps in the lead into a desultory ninth place, proving once and for all that he doesn’t deserve the Racing Point seat and owes it only to the patronage of his team-owning father.
Both cannot be true, so which position is correct? In reality, neither.
It’s necessary to introduce a little nuance into the thorny subject of Stroll – first and foremost discounting the question of whether he’s a capable Formula 1 driver. He demonstrably is that and was that long before his pole position and even before the improved results of his best F1 campaign.
Many assumed that as someone who has questioned the legitimacy of Stroll’s place in a team that is currently F1’s third-best with legitimate aspirations of climbing higher, I would be unhappy with his pole position.
But the opposite was true – after all, the concern was not his fundamental potential but his ability to realise it. In qualifying, he nailed it and this is among the most memorable pole positions in F1 history. That’s the opposite of what he has been criticised for, so can’t be anything other than a positive.
It also wasn’t especially surprising given Stroll has always excelled in the wet. His front-row start at Monza in 2017 (pictured above) in such conditions is always cited but there are plenty of other occasions he has shown a serious turn of pace when grip is at a premium.
Similarly, it was a shame to see his race fall apart. He led 32 laps – effectively the first 36 laps of the race once you disregard the distortion of pitstops – and looked at ease for much of it.
Then things started to unravel. As the middle stint, on intermediates progressed, team-mate Sergio Perez’s speed improved relative to Stroll and he caught him to the point where a pass seemed likely, or at least necessary, when the Canadian was called in. Stroll then struggled badly on his second set of intermediates, suffering front graining and dropping back to ninth.
His dire struggles on intermediates that grained and offered no grip – although things improved later in the stint – were a symptom of the same problem and sent him into the dreaded downward tyre conditions spiral. If you don’t bring the intermediates in progressively, it can bite you. Stroll’s case was the most exaggerated manifestation of this in the race.
At the end of the race, I switched to Stroll’s onboard camera as I was interested in hearing his reaction to a race that had been a failure – and there’s no other word to describe finishing ninth having effectively led for so long.
Amid discussion about the final stint troubles, it was Stroll who pointed to the fact that the loss of pace over the first intermediate stint was at the heart of the troubles.
This was a little unexpected, as sometimes Stroll gives the impression of someone happy to find things to blame rather than getting to the heart of the problem. Here, after the devastating blow of his pole position turning to dust in the race, he showed he understood where the heart of the problem lay. That’s encouraging.
On Monday, Racing Point revealed that a loose strake on the underside of the front wing was responsible for Stroll’s struggles.
It’s certainly consistent with the problems with the fronts after the final stop as the intermediates can be very sensitive to front load, even if it’s difficult from the outside to quantify how big the impact was and what, if anything, Stroll could have done to mitigate it.
But it’s also a symptom of the problems connected to Stroll that Racing Point’s statement was understandably treated with scepticism by some – particularly on social media.
In our driver ratings, this did unusually lead to his rating being revised upwards given it indicated there was a problem in a key area that matched his difficulties.
In a way, the Turkey weekend was a microcosm of Stroll. The qualifying success shows that there is the raw material of a very good F1 driver in there, yet in four seasons his average performance level has fallen short of that.
There have been some excellent moments, some good races, but also plenty of very average showings even allowing for the limitations of the equipment.
That’s the difference that Stroll needs to make regardless of whether what happened in Turkey was in his hands or not.
High points are all well and good and were he a rookie, which he isn’t, that would be enough.
He needs to join the dots of those peaks of performance and the numbers for 2020 prove he has not done so even when you factor in the contracting COVID-19 and recent misfortune at Mugello and Sochi.
Stroll has only outqualified Perez three times out of 11 this season. Only one of those occasions was in the dry, which came in Spain, with the other two in the wet and the average deficit in normal conditions to Perez is around two-tenths of a second.
Perez is a wonderful driver, but qualifying is not his strength so Stroll really needs at least to be on a par with him. And he is not.
In the races, he sometimes just lacks that final edge – be it the capacity to force the issue in a tense battle or execute the kind of tyre management that Perez regularly does and, indeed, did last weekend.
Those are the things that push you into the higher echelons of F1 drivers but very often, thrusting first laps aside, Stroll often ends up holding what he’s got or only making limited gains. Monza, where he could have won after fortune turned the race in his favour, showed that.
What also doesn’t help is that, unlike many of his rivals, he’s not a very effective communicator – publicly, that is.
Even after his pole position, his delight in TV interviews had turned to a certain surliness when it came to the press conference.
Granted, there’s no obligation to be engaging or enlightening but if he feels misunderstood or picked on by the media, offering a little more insight into his process, methodology and experiences would help and not leave us to rely solely on the off-record comments of some of those who have worked with him. Often, respect for a driver’s craft grows with understanding of their approach.
You can argue Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t give much away, but ask him the right question and he can be very illuminating.
This is something that Stroll could potentially use to his advantage. While the whole ‘rich kid’ perception doesn’t actually impact the way he should be evaluated as a racing driver, it does project the impression of one driver who, while not going as far as not wanting to be there, isn’t quite motivated enough to dedicate himself mind, body and soul to F1. At this level, doing 99% isn’t enough, not against this opposition.
The combination of Stroll’s on-track performance and off-track persona doesn’t make for a bad athlete. Again, we’re talking about a perfectly decent Formula 1 driver here.
But for Racing Point he needs to be better than that – this is a team that has signed up a four-time world champion for next year, after all. And for all the ambition, the investment, the potential of a very good group of people at Silverstone, Stroll has not yet established himself as a driver of the calibre required by the Aston Martin project other than if you judge him in the most favourable way – by his occasional peaks – rather than average performance.
Which, inevitably, brings us to the question of why he’s there.
His father, Lawrence, appears to believe sincerely that Stroll is a future world champion and who can blame him. To call him the ultimate ‘karting dad’ is a crude characterisation as he’s clearly very serious about the team and there will come a day where Racing Point cannot just lead grands prix, but better still be up front at the end.
But while driver evaluation is a subjective art given the complexity of the variables, that position is a little too subjective.
Glance down the list of 20 names currently on the F1 grid and surely most would pick out 10-12 names they would choose before Stroll. That is at the heart of the concerns about him.
It’s not that he is not capable of being on the grid, he’s a perfectly decent F1 driver, simply whether he’s ever going to realise that potential. If Racing Point does as Aston Martin, Stroll will need to be the best possible version of himself to be able to take regular wins.
Which brings us back to where we started. Has Turkey changed the perspective of Stroll?
It’s the fact that there’s more in there that is frustrating
For many, probably not, and personally it’s not a seismic shift – simply another slice of data to integrate into the model of Stroll as a driver that has built up over the past four seasons.
But that reaction after the chequered flag was encouraging, a spark that indicates maybe there is the capacity for him to accelerate his growth.
Regardless of the exact reasons of the problem, he was right to point to it and detect it was a factor in the middle stint rather than just blaming the decision to make a second stop.
When Toto Wolff talks about Lewis Hamilton, he refers to the capacity for rigorous self-analysis and self-improvement. It reveals what we’re looking for in Stroll. It would be unfair to expect a 22-year-old in his fourth season to match the capacity of a 35-year-old in his 14th, but reproducing some of that is what will take Stroll to a higher level.
While it’s difficult to judge what was possible, perhaps there’s another lesson in Hamilton for Stroll. In his recent F1 TV look back at his legendary charge from 17th to second in the Istanbul GP2 race in 2006, Hamilton said that it’s not always about winning that defines success.
“You don’t have to win a race in order to feel victorious, you don’t have to be first all the time to feel like you’re achieving or on top of the world,” said Hamilton. “It’s about how you deal with adversity.”
Whatever the cause of Stroll’s struggles, did he maximise what was possible in that adversity?
On a one-off basis, it’s hard to be sure, but this is certainly something that Stroll should have in mind because he doesn’t appear to react positively to difficult on track situations. And if he works on some of these areas, the potential is there.
After all, if Stroll was simply a no-mark pay driver, he wouldn’t get so much criticism – and he certainly wouldn’t be taking an F1 pole position. It’s the fact that there’s more in there that is frustrating.
Personally, I enjoy seeing drivers realise their potential and leaving no stone unturned in doing so. Stroll could yet do that, even if he hasn’t convinced that he is on that trajectory.
But perhaps that reaction after the chequered flag, at least looking to the heart of the problem rather than blaming the strategy, offers hope that it might yet come.