Things were supposed to be different this season for the Formula One driver from Montreal. So far, they have not been different enough.
Lance Stroll returns to the scene of his biggest triumph this weekend as Formula One rolls into Azerbaijan for the fourth Grand Prix of the season.
Two years ago, the Montreal native shocked the F1 world with a third-place finish in Baku, becoming the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium — in a car that had no business being there.
It was not the only highlight of his freshman year. There was an improbable ninth place at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve that felt like a win in front of his home crowd, and a near-impossible second place in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix.
Sure, he got lucky as misfortune hit the usual front-runners. Still, as I wrote at the time, Stroll “seems to have a flair for striking when the opportunity arises.”
Since then, though, he seems to have not much flair for anything.
Granted, last season was a write-off at Williams, the worst team on the grid. But this year was supposed to be different at Racing Point, bankrolled by a group of investors led by his billionaire father.
So far, it has not been different enough.
No question, the car is better — a mid-field contender rather than back-of-the-grid laggard — and it promises to get better still with Lawrence Stroll pulling the purse strings.
Racing Point recently unveiled plans for a major expansion of its U.K. factory worth the equivalent of $44 million Canadian in an effort to upgrade operations and build a more competitive car.
(They’re hiring, too, if you happen to be qualified. Design engineer (aerodynamics), software developer and stress/structural engineer are among the positions being advertised.)
Trouble is, cars alone don’t win championships, or even podiums. You also need a driver who can consistently extract maximum performance from his machinery. And this is where Stroll has struggled.
In particular, his qualifying performance has been shaky since Day 1, notwithstanding Italy 2017. And bad qualifying makes for difficult racing.
For the uninitiated, qualifying is made up of three sessions. In Q1, all 20 drivers have 18 minutes to set their best lap time, with the five slowest relegated to the back of the starting grid. Q2 sets the order for positions 11-15, and Q3 for the top 10.
In theory, then, teammates in equal cars would be expected to line up next to each other on race day — provided each has done the job of extracting maximum performance during qualifying.
Hence, the starting grid at the last stop, on April 14 in China: two Mercedes followed by two Ferraris followed by two Red Bulls followed by two Renaults followed by two Haas.
And Racing Point? The first pink car appears in the 12th slot, courtesy of Sergio Perez, while teammate Stroll is down in 16th. Ouff.
Hey, stuff happens, thank goodness. Otherwise F1 would be even more predictable than it already is. But for Stroll, China marked the seventh straight time he failed to get out of Q1, going back to last year. Double ouff.
Maybe in the past he could blame his lemon of a car, but not now. In the three Grands Prix so far, Perez has twice steered his Racing Point into Q2, and once into Q3.
Happily, both drivers seem equally adept at making up places during the race. In Shanghai and in Bahrain before that, both finished four places better than where they started. For Perez, though, that meant two top-10 finishes and championship points. Not for Stroll.
Another problem: The farther back you start, the greater the risk of getting into an accident as you try to make up ground — as happened to Stroll in Bahrain, hampering his race (and ending Romain Grosjean’s of Haas).
Stroll has said it will take some time to get used to his new team and car, which is reasonable. It’s been only three Grands Prix, after all. And yet, some newbies — notably Charles Leclerc at Ferrari — seem to have no such teething problems.
On Friday, Leclerc posted the fastest lap of all drivers during practice for Sunday’s race in Baku, while Stroll crashed.
“I’m not quite getting to grips with the car 100 per cent yet and I made some mistakes on my lap, which cost a couple of tenths and, in the end, that’s all it takes,” Stroll said after his qualifying trouble in China.
“I don’t feel I got as much out of it as I should, so it could definitely have been better.”
He must make it better, and soon, because this is a problem no amount of daddy’s money can fix.
AT A GLANCE
Azerbaijan Grand Prix live coverage. Qualifying: Saturday 8 a.m. TSN5; 8:45 a.m. RDS. Race: Sunday 6:30 a.m. TSN5; 7:30 a.m. TSN1, TSN4; 7:30 a.m. RDS.