Lance Stroll’s performance in the Turkish Grand Prix weekend was undoubtedly the most noteworthy of his 75-race career so far.
But will it do anything to convince the 22-year-old’s doubters of his ability? For many, Stroll has not shaken off the ‘pay driver’ tag applied following his money-no-object ascent into Formula 1 three years ago.
Stroll’s father, fashion billionaire Lawrence Stroll, ensured his son wanted for nothing in his ascent through the junior ranks. He joined Ferrari’s junior driver programme at the age of 11. His graduation to single-seaters came with top outfit Prema, who became an even stronger force in single-seater racing with Stroll’s investment.
The criticism has only grown since Stroll’s takeover of Force India, now Racing Point, soon to become Aston Martin since his subsequent purchase of the carmaker. When Sebastian Vettel appeared on the driver market there was no question whether Stroll would keep his son over the team’s long-serving driver Sergio Perez, who is currently in his sixth consecutive year as their top points scorer. As things stand, Perez will be unemployed after next month’s Abu Dhabi season finale.
But for those seeking either to write Stroll Jnr off as a talentless rich kid, or hail him as Canada’s next Jacques Villeneuve, his F1 career to date does not offer easy interpretation.
Is he grossly out of his depth in Formula 1? Clearly not. Stroll isn’t a serial crasher (the hair-raising days of 2015 are behind him) and he’s not wildly off the pace.
Is he a star of the future? It’s hard to make that case too.
Upcoming junior talents tend to make themselves known by consistently troubling their more experienced team mates, and bagging spectacular results when opportunities present themselves. But Stroll was rarely on terms with Felipe Massa in his debut season, didn’t really outshine rookie Sergey Sirotkin, and Perez has had little difficulty out-scoring him in their two years together.
Yet there is no denying there are days when Stroll produces results which make you sit up and take notice. That podium finish at Baku in 2017. Second on the grid (fourth in qualifying) at a rain-lashed Monza the same year.
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Last year he scored Force India’s single best result of the season in another wet race, at the Nurburgring. And then there was last weekend.
For 32 laps of the Turkish Grand Prix, Stroll looked on course for a stunning breakthrough win. However his victory hopes were dashed after making a second pit which dropped him into the middle of the field.
Any analysis of last weekend’s race at Istanbul has to start with the extreme, probably unique conditions the race was held in. The recently resurfaced track was slippery enough to begin with, and then it rained.
Car and tyre performance became incredibly volatile. Pirelli’s tyres are known to be highly temperature-sensitive at the best of times. In these exceptional circumstances different chassis extracted the best from their tyres at different grip levels..
The gaps between teams were therefore measured in seconds instead of tenths. There is no better illustration of this than world champions Mercedes, who having taken pole position at every previous round, were 4.7 seconds off the pace last Saturday.
Ordinarily this year only the two black cars have been in contention for pole position, plus occasionally Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Last Saturday Verstappen was fighting two pink cars. Perez was the first of the Racing Point drivers to try intermediates, and when it became clear the RP20 could conjure more out of those tyres than their rivals, Stroll followed him.
With the track drying, and Perez’s final lap spoiled by Antonio Giovinazzi, Stroll had a superb opportunity to claim pole position, and he took it. Whether Perez might have beaten him is a matter for conjecture, though Stroll should count himself fortunate that his lap was allowed to stand despite setting a personal best mini-sector as he passed yellow flags.
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So the race started, in similar conditions to the beginning of Q3, with Stroll on pole position and Verstappen alongside. When the lights went out the Red Bull driver floundered off the racing line, where there was somehow even less grip, allowing Perez into second. The Racing Points ran one-two (first pit stops aside) and Stroll was over 10 seconds ahead by lap 18.
It was at this point that, according to the team, Stroll suffered damage to a strake on the underside of his front wing which caused a “significant loss of front downforce”. His lap times briefly jumped by one-and-a-half seconds, then started to fall again.
The team identified the loss of performance. “You’re dropping a bit of lap time now, Lance,” his race engineer Brad Joyce pointed out. “No, it’s OK, it’s me,” Stroll replied.
A few laps before his loss of pace Stroll had been told to use the wetter patches of the track to stop his tyres overheating. Now Joyce advised him: “Don’t bother cooling tyres, it looks like that’s slowing you up a bit.”
“I’m picking up a lot of understeer,” Stroll added, consistent with the problem Racing Point later described. “Just keep pushing to maintain temperature,” Joyce advised, “don’t do any more cooling”.
Having weathered this sudden loss of performance, Stroll’s lap times subsequently stabilised. From laps 24 to 32 he held the lead over his team mate at slightly more than three seconds. Whatever had gone wrong with his front wing, at this stage in the race it wasn’t costing him any time to Perez.
But on lap 33 Perez suddenly increased his pace, finding almost nine-tenths of a second, latching onto the tail of his team mate. “I’m struggling,” said Stroll when told of Perez’s gain, “I can’t go quicker.”
Racing Point did not order Perez to hold position, but he pointed out he was losing time behind his team mate. By now Lewis Hamilton was catching Perez quickly, and Racing Point couldn’t let him to lose more time behind Stroll. Even so, they took two laps to bring Stroll in:
|33||To Stroll:||So we can go inter this lap if you think it’s going to be inter, not get dry, but…|
|33||Stroll:||Yeah I don’t know. I think it’s going to be dry soon. But I don’t know, Brad, it’s really tricky right now.|
|34||Stroll:||This is bad, we need to do something.|
|34||To Stroll:||Torque 10.|
|34||To Stroll:||Box box.|
|34||Stroll:||Are you sure?|
|34||To Stroll:||We’re going to inter, Lance, we’re going to put another set of inters on. How’s the aero balance, what do you want?|
|34||Stroll:||Why are we doing that? Why, why, why?|
|34||To Stroll:||OK, stay out then, stay out.|
|35||To Stroll:||Lance we think we should box this lap for a new inter.|
|35||Stroll:||OK, it’s your call.|
|35||To Stroll:||How about aero balance?|
|35||Stroll:||It feels OK.|
|35||Stroll:||Who is behind Sergio?|
|35||To Stroll:||Hamilton. That’s the only car you’ll lose to. But you’ll [unclear] the pace|
|35||Stroll:||OK. Do we think the others will have to stop?|
|35||To Stroll:||Everyone else has stopped. Box this lap.|
While this conversation was going on Perez lost over five seconds to Hamilton. On the lap after Stroll pitted, the Mercedes breezed past him into a lead he never lost.
Back on track with fresh rubber, but with traffic ahead of him, Stroll discovered to his dismay that his lap times were even slower on new tyres than they had been before. They eventually improved, to the point that he was able to lap quicker than Perez was doing on his much older tyres, but by then the damage was done, and he’d fallen to ninth place.
Whatever the caveats about the vagaries of car performance last weekend, to take pole position and lead the race as comfortably as Stroll did in conditions that wretched show genuine ability.
But his wing damage may have been only one of the factors at work in the increased tyre graining he experienced. His higher pace immediately at the start of the stints, and the (quickly-reversed) decision to cool his tyres by going off-line may have contributed. It’s not unheard of for two drivers within the same team to experience very different tyre performance, as was the case at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, when Stroll’s team mate Nico Hulkenberg had to had to make an extra pit stop late in the race.
Istanbul was another reminder of Stroll’s ability to produce unexpected performances, particularly when grip conditions were low. This we’ve seen before, so even if he had won the race, it might have have drastically changed many people’s opinions of him.
What Stroll still needs to show is that he can regularly out-perform his team mate in ordinary conditions the majority of the time. If he is able to do that alongside a driver of Vettel’s calibre next year, that may start to win over his doubters.
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