The Aston Martin Formula 1 team has been involved in its fair share of controversies in recent times, whether it’s last year’s so-called Pink Mercedes, complaints about the impact of aerodynamic rule changes for this year or its aggressive recruitment strategy. But executive chairman and co-owner Lawrence Stroll doesn’t see himself as a “disrupter” and insists the team operates in a gentlemanly fashion.
The team has been very critical of the impact of this year’s aero tweaks that Stroll suggests have cost both Aston Martin and Mercedes 0.7-1.2s per lap, depending on the circuit, given the fact they disadvantaged those running a low-rake concept more.
Aston Martin, then in its Racing Point guise, switched to the low-rake concept as part of its controversial cloning of the Mercedes – which was deemed legal with the exception of the illegally-designed rear brake ducts that resulted in a 15-point deduction and a €400,000 fine.
The team has been outspoken in its criticism of the rule changes, with team principal Otmar Szafnauer initially not ruling out the possibility of taking legal action before accepting the situation following conversations with the FIA.
“I don’t only think it’s Formula 1, but there’s obviously a lot of very strong personalities and a lot of very smart people,” said Stroll when asked if there was a need to be disruptive to succeed in F1.
“If you’re going to be a push-around, for a lack of a better word, I don’t think you’re going to succeed in this or in any other sport.
“I don’t know that I’ve been a disrupter, I’ve stood for what I believe to be correct. I have not made this significant investment in this company not to be fighting for world championships, so we’re going to do whatever it takes within the rules, obviously, and within being a gentleman.
“I don’t think we’ve done anything that any other team in Formula 1 wouldn’t do that’s trying to try to build a fantastic organisation.
“And I speak out what I think something’s been wrong.”
Stroll has certainly emerged as a hugely influential figure in F1. And while his team has been a disruptive force, that’s inevitable for an operation with the means and the motivation to establish itself as a frontrunner. Indeed, its aggressive recruitment approach has echoes of Red Bull in its early years, where plenty of its established rivals were critical.
With the team expanding from an initial headcount of around 400 when Stroll led the consortium that bought the team in 2018 (technically it bought the equipment, facilities and staff as it had to enter as a new team as a paperwork exercise) it’s impossible not to have a profound impact on the F1 job market.
And with the combination of the Aston Martin name and serious ambitions, Stroll claims that 70-80% of the personnel the team has spoken to about joining have signed up – with “another very senior member of another team” due to be announced this week.
That follows the signings of Alfa Romeo’s Luca Furbato as engineering director, arriving at the start of next year, and Red Bull’s Dan Fallows as technical director, albeit with an indeterminate start date, to work under recently-promoted chief technical officer Andy Green.
There has also been huge investment in the team’s facilities, with a new purpose-built factory on its Silverstone site due to be completed late next year and a state-of-the-art windtunnel due in 2022. Stroll puts that at a cost of in excess of £150million, a necessary spend if the team is to achieve its aim of winning world championships.
Currently, Aston Martin is sharing the Mercedes windtunnel, which is possible because of the strict limitations on occupancy and usage. But having initially believed this arrangement would work for the long-term, Green revised his opinion and stressed the advantage of the greater flexibility of its own on-site facility. And Stroll didn’t shy away at the cost.
But despite the investment and the assistance of the cost cap being introduced, it is going to take time to pay off. While there is the opportunity of the major change in technical regulations next year, Stroll recognises it’s going to take time to be in a position to fight for championships, although Aston’s form should take a step forward next year after this season’s struggles.
“I think it’s four, five, six years,” he says of the timeline. “We’re currently in a good place. We share Mercedes’s windtunnel, so we’re in one of the best windtunnels – it’s not as good as having your own but it’s not like we’re sacrificing by being in a poor windtunnel.
“We’ve definitely outgrown our facilities, we’re putting up a lot of temporary facilities around our site in order to accommodate all these new hires. I think we’ll be in the new place in, I think, 18 months – so call it 20 months, the end of next year.
“So we’re not really compromising anything. And Formula 1, like any other business, I don’t think you could realistically plan on winning before four or five years. I think that’s realistically what it takes.”
There’s plenty to admire about the approach Stroll and the team has taken. While Stroll has a reputation for not being easy to work for and there is always the risk of impatience undermining the team’s progress, the steps taken since he acquired the team have been the right ones. But there is one problem.
And that’s the driver line-up. Signing Sebastian Vettel was a qualified risk and a good one to take. His on-track performances this season have been a mixed bag, with outstanding showings at Monaco and Baku, but his value to the team and all-round contribution has made him a valuable asset. His signing was a clear statement of intent and the right move.
But 22-year-old Lance Stroll in the other car, now in his fifth season of Formula 1, has yet to show he is, or has the potential to be, anything more than a capable grand prix driver. Stroll Sr describes it as “a perfect driver line-up blend of championship-winning experience and known-how with Seb and raw, young talent”, but there is a big asterisk against Lance Stroll.
After all, this is a team that has invested heavily in all the right areas and genuinely is on a trajectory that can take it to the top in F1. But while its owner’s determination to have his son in the car might be understandable and part of the reason he invested in the first place, Stroll Jr is a weak link despite occasional high points such as his excellent pole position in Turkey last year.
“Lance has done a extraordinary job – he is all of 22 years of age – whether it was his performance on pole [in Turkey] or on several podiums, or competing this year with Sebastian I think they’re probably about even,” said Stroll when asked by The Race if his son’s seemingly inviolable place on the team risks undermining its ambitions.
“So I don’t have any concerns or feelings that Lance has a lack of performance.
“As he grows, he will get more experience, as he gets more experience he will, like anyone else his age, get stronger. So I have absolutely no concerns.”
To describe Stroll and Vettel as “about even” is fair based on their performances in qualifying and the races this year, although it’s difficult to gauge Vettel’s current level.
The question of Lance’s capabilities will be answered definitively with time, assuming Aston Martin does emerge as a genuine frontrunner in the coming years. But it is the one obvious potential blind spot where the approach does not appear to be only the best is good enough.
But at this weekend’s British Grand Prix, the drivers certainly won’t be the problem for a team that is able to challenge only for minor points places on conventional circuits.
However, as it’s the homecoming for an Aston Martin brand that hasn’t raced in F1 since 1961 – and when it did do so, it largely did so pitifully with an out-of-date car – Silverstone will be a barometer of how the UK public is taking to the latest team to carry British Racing Green.
“This is exceptional with its 107-year history,” said Stroll. “There’s been a great amount of supporters for the brand historically, already, but there’s been many other forms of racing [other than F1].
“We’re already seeing their support. The level of enthusiasm and excitement that we’re seeing through social [media] since we returned to Formula 1 even before we turn the first wheel, the excitement of the launch was very impressive.
“So we’re already getting a tremendous amount of support, a lot more than I’d ever dreamed we’d have at this stage of our new young Aston Martin life.”