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Lance Stroll: just another pay driver?

Written by Aiden Hover, Edited by Harshi Vashee

When looking at the main headlines regarding Lance Stroll, this seems like a very straightforward question with a predictable answer. As the son of the multi-billionaire Canadian businessman, Lawrence Stroll, it's easy to assume that money has played an instrumental role in Lance’s career. And whilst it's true that this financial assistance has been a huge advantage to him, his place on the Formula One grid is by far not without merit - despite what the mass hoards of Lance Stroll haters would say.

To begin, we need to look at Lance's junior career to gauge how he performed before the pressure and limelight of F1. Winning the Canadian Karting championship in both 2008 and 2010 along with the Florida Winter Tour was a great way for the young Canadian to start and in doing so he clearly impressed some very important people. Namely, Luca Baldiserri, who signed Stroll onto the Ferrari driver academy in July of 2010 commending his exceptional talent despite his young age, being just 11 at the time.

From 2011, Lance would move to Europe to take part in international karting championships (an endeavour that came with little success) before making his step up to car racing in 2014, joining Italian F4. Lance would dominate the season, winning the championship in spectacular fashion with a gap of 94 points to the driver in second. This impressive result was followed by a move to New Zealand in 2015 to compete in the Toyota racing series in which he once again came out on top making it two successive championship seasons in a row. All was looking good for the Canadian as he made the switch to European F3 later that season.

Competing against the likes of Charles Leclerc, Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell, Stroll performed admirably to take 5th in the championship with a race win despite the high calibre grid. However, it's worth mentioning that Stroll finished behind both of his teammates, Jake Dennis and Felix Rosenqvist with the Swede becoming champion. The following year would nonetheless be Stroll’s as a dominant run of wins allowed him to win the European F3 title.

At this point, it was clear Lance Stroll had plenty of talent. Yes, money had helped him get into some of the best teams and had ensured he had the best equipment to work with, but money doesn't steer the car - that's all Stroll. However, no one expected what would happen next. With Valtteri Bottas making the move to Mercedes, Lance Stroll would be announced as his Williams replacement for the 2017 season alongside Felipe Massa. This decision caused an uproar amongst many fans of the sport as Stroll had skipped the traditional step up to Formula Two and had instead jumped straight to the top of the motorsport ladder for no obvious reason besides the $80 million in investment he brought to the struggling Williams team. It was around this time that the term pay driver became synonymous with Lance Stroll and it was now up to him to change that.

His debut season was far from smooth, with a crash in practice for Australia, a collision in China with Sergio Perez and another crash in Bahrain in which he T-boned Carlos Sainz. It was fair to say his Formula One career had gotten off to a rocky start. However, he took centre stage in Baku and stunned the world with an impressive podium following a manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Stroll had performed well to navigate the carnage around and was able to capitalise on the misfortunes of others to put himself in a comfortable second place with a few laps to go, before being pipped to the line by Valtteri Bottas. Nonetheless, Stroll had secured 3rd place and his first career podium becoming the youngest rookie to ever do so.

Several rounds later at Monza, Stroll would impress again setting the fourth-fastest time in a rain-soaked qualifying, demonstrating immense skill and dexterity behind the wheel. Thanks to grid penalties for both RedBull drivers, Stroll would be promoted to second for Sunday’s grid making him the youngest driver to ever start a Formula One race on the front row. The rest of the 2017 season would see the Canadian take a number of points finishes and leave him 12th in the standings - not too bad for a rookie.

In 2018, however, things went downhill. Williams had by far the slowest car on the grid that year and there was not much Lance could do to demonstrate his talent. Meanwhile, further up the grid, Force India had entered administration as finances for the Silverstone based-team had finally run dry and they were looking for a buyer. Many names were thrown into the ring as potential new owners, but none would bid higher than a Canadian consortium of investors led by none other than Lawrence Stroll. Fortunately for Stroll Jr., this offered him a way out of the sinking Williams team and Lance was announced as a Racing Point (Force India’s new name following the buyout) driver for the 2019 season.

Once again, Stroll’s career move upset much of the Formula One community as many saw it as Stroll Sr. buying an entire Formula One team solely to secure his son a seat on the grid. The uproar was made worse as the driver Stroll was replacing, Esteban Ocon, was left without a drive for the 2019 season. Ocon was a fan favourite due to the humbling story of how he got into F1, with his parents even selling their house to fund their son’s dreams. Esteban’s story was a true rags to riches fairytale cut short by Stroll, whose career up to that point had been the polar opposite to Ocon’s. It's easy to see where the hate for the Canadian came from as Lawrence Stroll’s participation in the Force India/Racing Point buyout was painted in evil - despite how it saved hundreds of jobs and a much-loved team from liquidation.

Nonetheless, 2019 would begin with Lance Stroll in Pink alongside Sergio Perez. His season was far from amazing as he would consistently perform poorly in qualifying - a far throw from his Monza heroics only a few years prior. However, he was often commended for his ability to race good races. He only finished lower than his grid position once the entire season demonstrating his ability to keep it clean and pass cars when it mattered, but this never amounted to many spectacular results as his pace in qualifying made races overly hard for himself. He would finish the season 15th, a long way behind teammate Perez. Clearly, Lance needed to improve his pace over one lap if he ever wanted a serious shot at good results.

Remaining with Racing Point for 2020, Lance enjoyed his best season to date, with points coming in only the second round of the season. Come round 3 in Hungary and it seemed as though Lance had gotten over his qualifying issues, putting his car 3rd on the grid and eventually taking home 4th finally showing a return on all the potential demonstrated throughout his junior career. Points came again with 4th place in Spain before an impressive podium finish in Monza following a hectic race. However, it's important to mention that this should have been a win for the Canadian as he was in prime condition to compete with eventual race winner Pierre Gasly before locking up and missing the second chicane and only managing to recover up to 3rd. At this point in the season, Lance Stroll was sitting a very pretty fourth place in the championship, behind only the two Mercedes and Max Verstappen.

Unfortunately, this good form soon dropped off with a string of retirements and a healthy dose of bad luck, namely being spun out of the race in Russia by Charles Leclerc and contracting COVID-19 ahead of the German Grand Prix. Regardless of these setbacks, Lance Stroll entered the last few rounds of the season with a point to prove. Beginning in the rain-soaked qualifying session ahead of the Turkish Grand Prix, in which Stroll placed his Racing Point on the front of the grid becoming the first Canadian driver to take a pole position since 1997 following an immense lap. He would go on to lead much of the race before poor strategy caused him to frustratingly fall backwards. At the Sakhir Grand Prix, Stroll would once again pick his way through the carnage to finish on the podium. Clearly, his talent was obvious to the entire grid and his doubters had been silenced. Sadly for Stroll, In Turkey, where he had scored pole only to slip back through the field, his teammate Sergio Perez would finish second and in Sakhir where Stroll would finish third, Perez would win the race. Despite a mega season, he had been truly outshone by his teammate.

This made the decision by Racing Point to drop Sergio Perez over Lance Stroll to make way for incoming Sebastian Vettel for the 2021 season very confusing. Once again, it appeared as though money (and the fact Stroll Sr. owned the team) had gifted an opportunity to Stroll that he otherwise didn't deserve. Nonetheless, 2020 was an outstanding season for Stroll as he demonstrated he had an abundance of speed that was only hampered by a number of annoying mistakes. If he could round some of these rough edges out, then Stroll could finally be considered a serious talent and lay the pay driver remarks to rest.

To the frustration of many, Lance Stroll remained with Racing Point (now known as Aston Martin) for the 2021 season. Alongside Sebastian Vettel, Stroll seemed mostly anonymous for much of the year struggling with a tricky car to drive, although he still consistently scored points where he could, finishing 13th in the standings. With a best result of sixth and his only notable moment of the year being his role in a multi-car pile-up in Hungary, it's fair to say 2021 was disappointing for the Canadian. Once again outshone by his teammate, who secured a podium in Baku and a number of other impressive results, Stroll seemed to have lost some of that raw pace he briefly showed the year prior.

With that then, it's time to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article. Early on in his Formula One career, calling Lance Stroll a pay driver was very accurate. Regardless of his Junior Formula success, it was clear his quick succession to Williams was money motivated. However, since then Stroll has grown into his role as a Formula One driver very well, improving year on year distancing himself from the pay driver reputation. With impressive results in 2020 and a steady, if not unremarkable, 2021. I argue then that Stroll has finally proven he deserves the seat he currently has at Aston Martin and if, for some wild reason, his father’s investment team suddenly uproot and leave the team in someone else's leadership, he would still be kept on. Entering his 6th year in the sport, Stroll has plenty of experience and can now put his evident speed to use and - given he has access to a competitive car - he could even fight for race wins. 2022 will be a crucial year for Stroll as he needs to recreate some of those stunning 2020 results and take the role of team leader away from Sebatsian Vettel or at least avoid being outshone by the German.

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