Since finishing third in the Italian Grand Prix to move up to fourth in the world championship, Racing Point driver Lance Stroll has had a difficult time in Formula 1 and has not scored a point in the last five races.
The first three races of that run were a tale of misfortune, with Stroll crashing out of fourth place thanks to a tyre letting go at Mugello, spinning into the wall at Sochi after being hit by Charles Leclerc and missing the Eifel Grand Prix thanks to COVID-19. But in performance terms, the recent Portuguese and Emilia Romagna GP weekends have been his weakest of the season.
Stroll’s qualifying deficit to team-mate Sergio Perez has been bigger in these two events than at any other time this year – 0.497s and 0.433s respectively. He also had on-track incidents in both races, turning in on Lando Norris while attempting to take seventh place after an early charge from 12th on the grid in Portugal, then clipping Esteban Ocon and losing his front wing on the first lap at Imola.
Racing Point technical director Andy Green conceded following the race at Imola that the after-effects of COVID-19 appear to have contributed to Stroll’s dip in form, which comes off the back of a run of seven consecutive points finishes.
While Stroll himself has shrugged off any suggestions of a ‘COVID hangover’, it’s well-known that some continue to struggle with after-effects even after they have already tested negative. While the impact might not be obvious to him, for an F1 driver even a slight drop-off that might not be perceptible out of the car can have a big effect.
“Obviously, he’s not where he was,” said Green. “From where he was at Monza to where he is now, [there’s] a lack of confidence, which we’re going to have to work on to try and get it back.
“I think the illness did knock it out of him, that’s something that we hadn’t really foreseen. We’d heard about the length of time it can take to recover from the illness and it has taken some time. He just needs to get his confidence back again and believe in himself again. And we’ll get the Lance back that we had for the first two-thirds of the season.”
Stroll’s struggles come at a bad time for Racing Point, which has now slipped to fifth in the constructors’ championship – albeit only one point behind Renault in third place.
With Perez on a strong run of form, only losing out on third place at Imola thanks to the decision to pit under the safety car late on, the team needs Stroll back on form to reclaim the position in what is usually capable of being the strongest car in the midfield.
But Green suggested the heavy impact Stroll suffered in his race-stopping shunt at Mugello has also played a part, as have struggles with the tyres.
“He’s taken quite a battering physically and mentally,” said Green. “It was quite a big accident in Mugello, so I think that that probably dented his confidence. And then not to be fit for a couple of races [after returning from COVID-19].
“So physically, we thought it was taking him out of it, that it would be difficult to jump back in. Mentally, he’s just not where he was a few races ago. But I think he needs to get a couple of races under his belt, which is what he’s done now.
“It is really, really fine margins here and if you’re not on top of the car and understanding where the tyres are and getting them in their sweet spot, you can be made to look like an idiot.
“We need to get him back on track. We can do that, we’ve got the tools, we’ve got the people. He probably just needs a bit of an arm around him and a bit of a hug and say, ‘come on, let’s pull yourself together now and let’s get on with it for the last few races and try and get back to third in the championship’.
“He is more than capable of doing it. It’s just a bit tough on him at the moment.”
Given Stroll also showed signs of struggling at Sochi, where he failed to reach Q3 but made up ground in the first-lap chaos before being hit by Leclerc, there were signs of his difficulties starting even before he’s missed the Nurburgring event.
There does appear to be a difference in his driving, with a much more hesitant approach on corner entry than was evident earlier in the season. Perez appears not to be suffering from the same limitation, which given the timing suggests perhaps that the suspension upgrade introduced on the Sochi weekend might be a contributing factor to Stroll’s struggles.
Changes were made at Imola by rolling back on part of the suspension upgrade, although this ultimately did not have the desired impact.
“I think it’s a good point and there are some things we potentially thought might have been suspension-related in the comments that he made,” said Racing Point technical director Andy Green when The Race put this suggestion to him.
“He actually reverted back on a portion of that suspension for this race [Imola]. In hindsight, he now realises that was probably a bad move. It’s not the whole issue, but that’s all part of a bit of a lack of confidence and questioning where the car is and what’s changed.
“We couldn’t revert back [at Imola] because obviously with that with a two-day weekend, it was a ‘fit it and forget’. With hindsight, he’s going to be happy to go back to where we were and that is part of that entry sharpness that you can see, that nervousness of turning in.
“That’s something that was present this weekend and something that we’ll dial out in the remaining races. The previous version was a bit too slow, basically, he thought it wasn’t fast enough. So he wanted it more reactive.
“So we made it more reactive, but now it’s too reactive. We’ve had to go back, so now we’ve learned the lesson. So we’ll go back.
“But again, it’s one of those things where you have to be so kind to these tyres and so gentle with them. Any excess sliding that you put in, especially on the entry phase to the corner, really penalises you, not just on the entry, but all through the corner and then onto the exits.
“If you don’t have a balance that’s really gentle on the tyres and really smooth, you suffer in in all aspects of the corner. That’s part of the problem.”
Stroll needs a strong finish to the season to rebuild some of the momentum he built early in the year. While his troubles have been more obvious in recent races, he’s been outqualified by Perez in the last eight events where both competed with his average deficit around the two-tenths mark.
Even at Monza, where he finished third, Stroll was off Perez’s pace but benefitted from a track position boost thanks to the timing of the safety car and the subsequent red flag. Chances are, if he can rebuild that confidence on corner entry, his form will improve and that will likely be a focus in practice at Istanbul Park this weekend. If Stroll can get on top of that, his performances will improve. This is perfectly possible given the car troubles, the bad luck and the impact of his bout of COVID-19.
Otherwise what had started to shape up as a breakthrough season early on will ultimately prove to be a disappointment.