What’s behind Stroll’s timely breakthrough? - The Race
Formula 1

What’s behind Stroll’s timely breakthrough?

Jul 19 2020
By Edd Straw

Lance Stroll’s third place in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, ahead of Racing Point team-mate Sergio Perez, was a timely improvement in performance given the intense scrutiny on the team potentially replacing one of its drivers with Sebastian Vettel next year.

The 21-year-old Canadian lapped 0.168s faster than Perez to outqualify him for the second time in three races in 2020, which is significant given Saturday performances have usually been his weak point.

If Vettel does sign up for next year, the decision of which driver he should replace will be a contentious one, as by all performance metrics Sergio Perez has comfortably been the stronger driver over his and Stroll’s time as team-mates and also brings the additional benefit of significant sponsorship.

But Lawrence Stroll leads the consortium that owns the team and is understood to be keen to keep his son over Perez – a decision that would only be justifiable on performance grounds if Lance is able to raise his game consistently.

Building confidence

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, HungaryTeam principal Otmar Szafnauer called Stroll’s qualifying performance “a confidence-builder”.

With qualifying a regular point of discussion for Stroll, he has struggled to balance up the need to be aggressive enough to maximise the grip of fresh, soft rubber in dry conditions.

His qualifying laps often feature an aggregation of small errors, such as occasionally taking too much kerb in one corner or carrying in too much speed into a corner. This was evident on his first Q3 lap when he ran wide in Turn 5 and the rear stepped out on him in the last corner when he was too aggressive on the throttle.

But Stroll’s second lap was more precise and yielded an improvement of around three tenths of a second.

“Lance is a really smart kid as a driver, and he’s been learning from us,” said Szafnauer.

“We’ve been teaching him in our way and we always knew he had potential and we would verbally tell him, but to actually do it, achieve it, get it done, it means that his confidence will grow because now he knows he’s got the ability.

“It’s not just us telling him ‘look you’ve got the ability, just go out there and drive’. He actually did it and [it] means in the future he can repeat it.”

Repeating it will be the key for Stroll, who has yet to show he can deliver in qualifying on a regular basis.

Better car, better Stroll?

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, HungaryStroll himself downplayed any suggestions he had proved a point given the criticism of the possibility of him retaining his seat over Perez should Vettel come in, saying he was “not bothered” with that.

But he did claim that the improved car helped him to improve his performance and that he struggled to overcome the limitations of the Williams machinery he raced in 2017-18 and last year’s Racing Point.

The Mercedes W10-based Racing Point RP20 is not only a quick car, but a consistent one that appears to instill confidence in the driver, and that has helped Stroll.

“I’ve driven a pretty bad car the first couple of years in Formula 1 and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence,” said Stroll.

“So I struggled a driver to drive around some of the limitations and last year was a big learning year for me.

“I learned a lot about myself and about my strengths and my weaknesses and I just worked on them over the course of last season and coming into this season.

“That, ultimately, leads to better results and better qualifyings. It’s just been some hard work away from the track and just learning on my end, how I can be better, how I can get more out of myself

“It’s really a lot of fun to drive this car, it’s a whole, whole different experience to last year’s car.

“It puts a big smile on my face for sure, doing a qually lap around here and the balance is right and your driving is coming together, it’s a real flow.”

Did Perez underperform?

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Preparation Day Budapest, HungaryPerez had outpaced Stroll in FP3 and Q1, but from Q2 onwards was behind his team-mate and even flirted with being eliminated in the second stage of qualifying after lapping 0.218s off his team-mate on mediums.

He was slower than Stroll in all three sectors in qualifying – but was visibly uncomfortable after the session and admitted he did not feel at his best.

“I didn’t feel 100% physically during qualifying,” said Perez.

“I was getting dizzy through the qualifying and that’s not great to have. I need to check with my physio what’s going on.”

Racing Point has confirmed Perez feels well today after a good night’s sleep, with the physical demands of the intense flurry of track time after the long hiatus believed to be behind yesterday’s struggles.

Perez feels good ahead of the race and expects no repeat after rest, but the fact he was struggling on Saturday leaves an asterisk against the comparison between him and Stroll.

Still a long way to go

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, HungaryStroll still has to deliver at a high level on a consistent basis to justify his place at the team, and two improved Saturday performances are not enough to indicate the tables have turned.

Qualifying for the Styrian Grand Prix was in the wet conditions Stroll often excels in, and Perez was both faster and more incisive in the dry race that followed. And even if Stroll can consistently come close to matching Perez in qualifying, he will then have to show that he can deliver at the same high level in races.

Perez has been a standout performer in midfield machinery over the past decade, taking eight podium finishes despite never driving for a team that finished higher fourth in the constructors’ championship.

That’s a very high bar to aspire to but it’s what Stroll has to achieve consistently if the team is to avoid embarrassment should it choose to replace Perez with Vettel.

But despite Stroll having been heavily criticised since coming into F1 thanks to significant financial backing, there is genuine potential there to be unleashed – his dominant performances in Formula 3 in 2016 are proof of that. Financial backing creates opportunity but the driver still has to drive the car and no amount of cash can make a slow driver fast.

This year, Stroll has a high-quality and drivable car that leaves him with no excuses. But there’s still a long way to go to prove himself to be even close to Perez’s level on a consistent basis and he must do what he couldn’t do in the Styrian GP and follow up his stronger qualifying performance with a good performance in today’s race.

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