“Jesus Christ! What that f*** is that!?”
Or something to that effect.
Imola. Friday October 10th, 2014 and a colleague had sent a message urging me to come down to the far end of the paddock. Apparently, there was something that needed to be seen.
Things had quietened down somewhat. Having just finished – and enjoyed – lunch, there was more than enough time for a fifteen-minute stroll to walk off the local pasta and Ragú.
Situated toward the north-east of Italy, the province of Emilia-Romagna can be quite beautiful. By October, the height of the summer heat has dissipated, and the days are shorter, but the region still carries delightful wisps of warmth through the air. Having already taken in the Ayrton Senna memorial site, I started for the support paddock before too much of the day was lost.
In the background, the sombre quiet was punctured by the sound of gaggles of Formula 4 cars in circulation. From time-to-time, the driver’s lack of experience and skill overtook their speed and craft, with the resulting off necessitating brief red flags, during which the noise dissipated again, allowing the Santerno River to sing in ripples.
Being a relatively quiet weekend – European Formula 3 and Italian Formula 4 were supporting Italian GT – and as such, portions of the circuit’s extended paddock were rather empty.
There were scatterings of people around with pictures waiting to be signed. Only two months earlier Van Amersfoort Racing’s Max Verstappen had been announced as Toro Rosso’s 2015 signing, drawing the attention of a few autograph hunters, most of whom departed with a smile.
As well as that, Antonio Fuoco’s fan club arrived that weekend – a curiosity considering the Italian had shown precious little of his championship-winning Formula 4 form in the European Championship.
Unfortunately for Fuoco, the arrival of Verstappen and fellow rookie – and eventual European F3 champion – Esteban Ocon spooked him and apart from occasionally sharp performances, the results simply weren’t there. His inconsistency was carried into later formulae, ensuring Formula One was never going to be a realistic prospect.
There was another prospect at the far end of the paddock and as I crossed the tarmac, detoured around the helipad, a large, mundane grey monstrosity came into view.
“Jesus Christ! What that f*** is that!?” Or something to that effect.
Amidst the simpler awnings oft associated with Formula 4 was the Lance Stroll motorhome – a Formula One sized motorhome, planted at the base of the support paddock. The unpainted, decadent mammoth was a disconcerting statement of intent and a message that the Stroll’s meant serious business.
Having already secured the title, Stroll did not take part in the Italian F4 finale, citing an injury picked up during karting, however this was countered by acknowledgements that Stroll had already been testing a Formula 3 car with Prema Powerteam.
As he was not moving up to F3 until the next year, Stroll was not bound by Formula 3’s testing restrictions. The Canadian was far from alone in taking this option. It was an easy way to ensure a driver could get around the testing limitations. If a driver is not actively participating in Formula 3, then how can a testing restriction possibly be applied to that driver…?
“So, this is how it is now?”
Stroll’s arrival signposted not just his ambitions, but also his father’s. Lawrence may never have been a racing driver – although he has tried a competed in Ferrari Challenge occasionally – however he does have visions for Formula One. In 2018, he led a consortium that bought the Force India team and earlier this year, he led another consortium to invest a 16.7% in the struggling Aston Martin company. All this came after a huge spend in the junior categories.
In the space of a few short years, the goalposts had changed dramatically in Formula 3. Latifi money had come and gone – although that was less opulent – the Gelael funding was in the midst of being spread around everywhere and anywhere and soon, the Mazepin cash cow was being milked. And this is before one even begins to consider to endless flow of monies from the Norris’, the Russell’s, the Schumacher’s, the everyone else.
The denomination really didn’t matter, but it did much to drive costs higher and higher, although those taking the money were not ones to complain too much.
Stroll tested and tested and learned and spent much 2015 crashing very hard. When he won the European Championship the following season, a far more restrained Stroll enjoyed the spoils. The then teenager would regularly qualify up front, taking several wins and podiums with oft unchallenged ease, but when Stroll qualified poorly, he would often make little or no progress through a race.
There had been accusations of team orders during Stroll’s two years in Formula 3. With Stroll being the apparent number one driver at Prema Powerteam, there were curious moments when his teammates Maxi Gunther and Nick Cassidy would lift off in strange places or would leave the door wide open in convenient places.
This was not a popular subject, but it was one that simply never went away. Team orders in junior formulae is a tricky talking point – unlike in Formula One, junior categories are supposed to be every driver for themselves, with all entrants operating on an equal playing field. Alas, some drivers were more equal than others.
While he was winning in Formula 3, the preparation behind the scenes continued. Aided by then-Mercedes DTM racer Gary Paffett, Stroll regularly tested the 2014 Williams F1 car in anticipation of an F1 debut.
With all due respect to Stroll, he has carved out a position in Formula One as a driver who is not bad – especially on quicker circuits – but he is also not particularly stellar. Let’s not forget he is a driver who picked up a well-deserved podium at Baku in 2017 behind the wheel of a Williams. Put the Canadian in a car and on a track and give him a set of tasks and he will likely conclude them with relative success.
But actual racing – as in competing wheel-to-wheel with other drivers – has often been his weak point. Attempted overtakes rarely amount to much more than aimless ill-conceived lunges, and his defensive repertoire – often darting across the track – is unsightly and clumsy.
For the moment, he has a job and is hitting his marks and as long as his father is one of the shareholders of the Racing Point Formula One team, Stroll will most likely continue to achieve those aims. With Racing Point becoming Aston Martin F1 in 2021, it seems highly unlikely that the younger Stroll will be unseated and as rumours around Sebastian Vettel’s move to the Silverstone-based team continue to gather speed, Lawrence Stroll’s ambitions also gather pace.
Stroll – with the rest of the Formula One paddock – return to Imola at the end of October for F1’s first Grand Prix there since 2006. In its current layout, only Stroll, Latifi, Ocon and Verstappen, along with George Russell and Antonio Giovinazzi have experienced Imola but coming as it did in F3 and F4 machinery, none of that experience will of any particular relevance to the Grand Prix.
In saying that, for the build up to this race, simulators will be in heavy use, particularly as at this two-day event, there will only be a single ninety-minute practice session, so any knowledge is key knowledge.
Imola is a stunningly quick and evocative place and there is little doubt that Formula One will be quite special there. It is just a shame that for this occasion, I will not be in the paddock finishing a bowl of delightful pasta and eyeing up endless opulence.