If you were a fledgling new Formula 1 fan who did not know any better, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming the only reason Lance Stroll is on the grid is because he is the son of Aston Martin’s executive chairman Lawrence Stroll.
It’s easy to overlook the fact the younger Stroll is a Formula 3 champion. One of the youngest drivers ever to line up on the F1 grid, he has multiple appearances on the podium and is already one of the more experienced drivers in the field at the age of just 25 – when many world champions of old were still finding their feet in the highest level of motorsport.
Yet if 2023 was your first full season of following Formula 1, no one could blame you for having serious questions about Stroll’s worthiness for his Aston Martin seat – or even on the grid at all.
Some allowance must be made for the fact Stroll’s season started in the worst possible manner. As he trained ahead of the new campaign, he suffered a hand injury and a broken toe in a nasty cycling accident that caused him to miss the only pre-season test the week before the opening round of the season in Bahrain. While many assumed the time had come for Aston Martin’s reserve and junior driver Felipe Drugovich to get an opportunity to make his grand prix debut, Stroll knew the team had a fast car and was determined not to miss out. Despite a lack of track time in his car and being in a considerable degree of discomfort with his injuries, Stroll put in one of the gutsiest performances of his career to finish sixth – a very respectable result in the circumstances.
But that admirable showing in Sakhir remained potentially his most impressive of the season. For over the bulk of the year, Stroll was simply nowhere in comparison to his new team mate, veteran Fernando Alonso. While the 42-year-old twice world champion was on the podium six times over the opening eight rounds, Stroll peaked with a single fourth place finish in Melbourne – which only then he gained courtesy of Carlos Sainz Jnr’s costly penalty.
There was no mistaking the prowess of the AMR23 over the early rounds but Stroll was continually unable to make the most of it. If he wasn’t being beaten by cars that could not touch his team mate ahead, he was starting to regularly miss out on Q3 – something Alonso never failed to achieve over the first half of the season. Stroll was genuinely unlucky in Monaco to be caught out by debris from Lando Norris’ McLaren in Q2, but when the rain came in the race he looked like a rookie. He slid off the slippery track multiple times and was the only driver to crash out. Again, Alonso finished on the podium.
Stroll managed to finish ahead of Alonso for the first time at his team mate’s home grand prix in Spain after doing a decent job through the weekend and although Aston Martin’s rivals were catching them, At this point he seemed to be finding his rhythm a bit more. But then his performance at the team’s home race at Silverstone was pain sloppy, driving more like a Formula 2 driver than an F1 driver and earning a time penalty for a silly clash with Pierre Gasly, leaving him outside of the points again. He headed into the summer break having crashed out of sprint race qualifying at Spa, but at least he secured points on Sunday.
The second half of the season should have been Stroll’s opportunity to reset and rebound. However, his form only seemed to fall off further as Aston Martin’s performance began to fade. Between the Italian and Mexican rounds, Stroll was eliminated from Q1 six consecutive times. He was becoming increasingly ragged in his pursuit of pace, resulting in a violent accident in qualifying at Singapore which ultimately forced him out of the grand prix. His frustration boiled over in an ugly fashion in Qatar, where he was seen appearing to shove his trainer after climbing out of his car following another disappointing qualifying performance, which earned him an investigation by the FIA’s compliance officer and a formal warning.
By this point in the championship, Stroll sat 136 points behind his team mate as Aston Martin suddenly found themselves under heavy pressure for fourth in the constructors’ championship from McLaren. But Aston Martin simply did not have the pace they once had and there was little Stroll nor Alonso could do to prevent the inevitable. At this point, Stroll finally got his act together. He was decent through the triple-header rounds at Austin, Mexico City and Interlagos, even if Alonso took the team’s final podium in the latter and he recovered from 19th on the grid in Las Vegas to take a very solid fifth place.
As the season ended, Stroll was six places behind his team mate in the championship in tenth – the lowest-placed driver from the top five teams by a wide margin. Removing his points contribution from Aston Martin’s total still left his team comfortably in fifth place, meaning Alonso had effectively got them there single-handedly.
It’s little wonder Aston Martin’s mild-mannered team principal Mike Krack had become noticeably tired of fending off awkward questions about Stroll’s performance over the latter half of the year. But if the son of the team’s part-owner does not show a marked improvement in 2024, those questions are only going to become even more frequent.
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