🇶🇦 F1'23: R17 - Formula Misinformation

The ego of a Formula 1 driver is at its most tested when the driver on the other side of the garage is doing better, or is seen as getting preferential treatment to you.

The Qatar Grand Prix was a good example of this up and down the grid, with three drivers it’s worth focusing on. We’ll start with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, who has had something of a weekend.

The Canadian driver is the definite weak link in his team, and perhaps always has been. This sounds damning but when the comparators are multi-time world champions, there is no shame in this. Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso are drivers of the highest calibre, but the pressure must be showing, especially with both Alpine drivers breathing down your neck, despite in the team game, having 100+ points of margin.

Over the weekend, Stroll threw his steering wheel out of the car, shoved his personal trainer, gave a Marshawn Lynch style interview to the media and then got a pair of five-second penalties, putting him outside the points at literally the worst part of the season. Aston Martin are at a crucial part of their journey as a Formula 1 team. They started this season brilliantly, and everyone thought there was a new contender upfront. It didn’t work out that way with other teams beating them in the development race as the green machine fell back through the field. When you have Alonso at the wheel, that can hide some of your deficiencies, only for them to be amplified by a second driver that might not be on the grid at all were it not for his family relationship.

That’s not to say Stroll is no good. He got a lot of deserved plaudits for his ironman drive in Bahrain, not long after a pre-season cycling crash, but since then, he has had some big crashes in Belgium and Singapore, the latter taking him out of the race itself. The result in Qatar means that his streak without finishing in the points has extended to five races - something that no other driver in the top 10 has achieved.

Stroll has only finished ahead of Alonso once this season. Back in Barcelona, the home driver finished seventh and pledged not to overtake his teammate ahead of him

As I wrote, this is a crucial time for Aston Martin and if they want to be taken seriously as a team at the front of the grid. Their rivals at McLaren picked up a double podium, and the gap to fourth is a small handful of points now. The loss of prize money might not be as devastating to a billionaire as it could be, but it will still hurt. And let’s face it, Lawrence Stroll hasn’t made his money by being bad at business. He’ll be able to see what the weakness is, even if he can’t point it out. 

So if you’re a billionaire, and you don’t want to make your Canadian Thanksgiving dinners awkward, but you want your F1 team to be better, what do you do? Exactly, you enter Le Mans!

Aston Martin’s Valkyrie project looks exciting, and might give both Strolls a life raft. For Sr, it allows him to clear the decks, sign a high-profile driver to replace Alonso (Leclerc 2025?) and replace Stroll with someone like Felipe Drugovich and see if he can replicate the F2 champion magic McLaren have managed, and give Jr a chance to stay in top-level motorsport. I’m not saying this is happening, but it feels like the most logical way forward.

And speaking of McLaren, the second tantrum goes to Lando Norris. A supremely talented driver, he had emerged as a leader at McLaren as they continued their rise up the table, streaking past the other contenders and even challenging Red Bull Racing at times. The achievement should not be understated.

But this is not the first time Norris has been outshined and asked for permission to be bad. He was told to hold station behind Oscar Piastri as the pair completed the podium in the Australian’s favour. As soon as this happened, he started making an elevator pitch at 200mph saying that he was much faster, honest. 

On the Saturday night, I felt a bit sorry for him. He finished third in the chaotic sprincident race, but ahead of him was a crowned World Champion Max Verstappen - putting the spotlight on him - and his teammate. Piastri won the race, so the applause rightly went his way. Norris was kind of a forgotten man, and he has been supremely hard on himself in the past 48 hours. 

Seeing your rookie teammate win an F1 event, albeit a sprint, must have stung a little bit. Seeing your best chance at victory get washed away at Sochi must have stung a little bit. Seeing your popular, but sad teammate win a race while you finish behind him must have stung a little bit. 

With 100 races coming up for the Brit, he still hasn’t had that statement victory, that moment that announces yourself to the world that you’re someone to watch and this team’s progress runs through you. You’re the centre of the change, demonstrating on asphalt the result of all those late nights that get put on paper. Instead, he’s holding the flowers for his younger teammate, who is developing all the time. The realisation to Norris that he is no longer a rookie, but a veteran without a win might be weighing heavily upon him.

But there’s no reason why that win can’t come. Look at Mercedes and George Russell. He owns the last win for the team, taking the chequered flag in Interlagos last year on a track that has suited Mercedes for several years. 

In Qatar, however, Russell and Hamilton collided at the first corner. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, with the soft tyred Hamilton attempting to bend around two drivers on the outside. I think he might have managed to be in turn 3 in the lead too, were it not with his rear wheel coming off after a collision with his teammate.

Cue the team radio swearing.

Eventually, it took Toto Wolff’s intervention from a factory in Brackley (or at home?) to remind Russell that actually, he was still in the race and if he gets his head down, he can still make an impact here. He took that to heart and eventually powered his way to fourth with an excellent recovery drive.

And that leaves his teammate. Lewis Hamilton walked across the track while cars were on it. He was never unsafe, but he will still be likely fined for this. On the formation lap, Hamilton was unhappy with being on soft tyres, thinking that he was a sitting duck for the cars around him. After hundreds of races, it’s still difficult to read him and whether he means what he says or whether he’s throwing out some bait via team radio for the other teams to lap up. 

That’s got to be the secret, right?

It’s difficult to contain your emotions in a literal pressure cooker, let alone while that cooker is steaming along at 200mph, but team radio is not just a way to convey information, but also tactical misinformation. The quicker drivers and teams realise this, they’ll have another medium to master.

Formula 1 moves onto its second appearance of the season (and its best) in the USA, with a trip to COTA in Texas. A Frankenstein’s monster of a track with elements lifted from elsewhere, COTA is a perfect mix of pure racing and pure showbiz. The titles have been decided, but that isn’t going to stop the sport making a literal song and dance about their appearance in Austin. Despite the domination, and the headlines against it, it’s difficult to see F1’s momentum falling, especially when there is so much human drama and emotion projected by the drivers protected by nomex suits. While they might be fireproof, they’re not ego-proof.

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