Speaking ahead of his debut campaign with the Aston Martin outfit, Fernando Alonso has exclaimed his belief that new team-mate Lance Stroll could be a Formula 1 champion in waiting.
But are his remarks purely speculative and an attempt to keep things affable in his newfound environment or is there actual substance to Alonso’s argument that Stroll has the minerals to emerge in later years as a serious title threat?
Entering his 21st season in the sport Alonso has seen it all and, as a two-time F1 title winner, he knows what it takes to become a champion in the highest echelons of motor racing.
But even with such a decorated record, the Spaniard’s remarks have been predominantly scoffed at. It’s a testament to the way Stroll has divided opinion since he entered F1 six years ago now, with many detractors continuing to be unimpressed with the way in which he came into the sport.
While the public backing of his father, Lawrence, was always likely to land him an F1 seat at some stage, it’s highly plausible that Lance wouldn’t have sustained his stay in the series without the added protection behind him.
Nevertheless, although he was also granted privileges not afforded to many in the junior-level formula, Stroll still did the job required in the lower categories to earn his chance and he’s progressed adequately enough in F1.
The Canadian has scored three career podiums, as well as a single pole position, in his 100-plus race F1 career and has never looked dangerously out of touch, despite entering the series somewhat prematurely at only 17 years old by moving straight from the European Formula 3 category into the highest tier.
There have been far worst competitors in the history of the World Championship yet Stroll debatably has a legitimate claim to being one of the most ridiculed ever. No matter the high points he produces, the praise quickly dissolves back to the stereotypical arguments used against his wealth to undermine his efforts.
But even the likes of Zhou Guanyu also required substantial backing to earn his current seat with Alfa Romeo over potentially more exciting young talents such as Sauber junior Theo Pourchaire, and the backlash China’s first full-time F1 driver received was minuscule compared to the mass criticism Stroll has endured for several years.
Zhou has rightfully earned further time to develop after a stable rookie campaign in 2022, but that same treatment and the opportunity to evolve as a driver wasn’t ever afforded to Stroll.
While Zhou was only able to score six points in a car his team-mate amassed 49 in, Stroll’s maiden campaign was a largely respectable one. The current Aston Martin driver only finished three points shy of his former race-winning team-mate Felipe Massa at Williams, while he also became the youngest podium finisher in the sport’s history in Azerbaijan.
Also achieving the impressive feat of registering the youngest front row in the records books in monsoon conditions at Monza – albeit qualifying fourth – was a particularly impressive moment, with a team that was notorious for producing packages slippery in a straight line but lacking the downforce to produce critical tyre temperature in the wet.
Such prowess and a great feel in adverse conditions have been a regular theme during Stroll’s F1 career and that exceptional Italian GP qualifying would be the prequel to him sensationally ending up in pole position when presented with a similar situation in Turkey in 2020.
Such accolades at such a young age would be unachievable for a driver lacking respectable talent. Due to being one of the more experienced names in the field, it’s frequently forgotten that Stroll does remain a part of the next generation that will shape the future of the sport.
Although it hasn’t exactly been at a rapid rate as other highly rated names, there have been evident signs of progression beneath the surface that has potentially been masked by the calibre of team-mates he has gone up against.
Only coming out on top against the Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin in 2018 has hardly done Stroll’s reputation many favours. However, he wasn’t disgraced by Felipe Massa in his debut campaign and – at his best – he could go toe-to-toe with Sergio Perez, who has proven himself as one of the most reliable midfield runners this decade.
Upon the squad’s rebrand to the Aston Martin name, Stroll was tipped to get blown away by the former four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. But, even if it was the German who brought home the big points hauls, Stroll still held his own, out-raced Vettel in their two years together and stayed within one-tenth during qualifying.
But Vettel, in the twilight of his career and reeling after a torrid final season with Ferrari, provided a difficult performance metric to gauge against. Comparatively, Alonso is coming into Aston Martin off the back of a fantastic final season at Alpine, where he will certainly prove to be a relevant benchmark for the level Stroll is truly operating at.
Former team-mates – like Vettel – and current Aston Martin Team Principal, Mike Krack, have praised Stroll’s capabilities previously but never to the extent Alonso has. The authenticity of such claims can be questioned by the Spaniard’s dubious history of bigging up team-mates to enhance his own credentials, most noticeably whilst partnering Felipe Massa for four consecutive seasons at Ferrari.
Therefore, it would hardly be unsurprising if his words proved to be a mind-game tactic and an attempt to maintain cordial relations while the honeymoon phase is still burning rather than it being a unique case of Alonso graciously taking the opportunity to talk up a fellow rival.
Only 34 individuals in the 72-year history of the F1 World Championship have been crowned Drivers’ champion – among those who have failed or are still waiting to accomplish that goal, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who suggests Stroll is near the top of that list.
Regardless of the below-par F1 machinery he has largely received, Stroll could still have earmarked himself as a driver deserving of the opportunity to fight it out at the front as George Russell managed with a struggling Williams side for three years.
But the three-time podium finisher has been unable to build a similarly strong case for that and the argument against his capacity to ever develop into a world-championship-winning driver can be quashed by the direct comparison with an ex-team-mate.
While Stroll was beaten convincingly by Perez in the same set-up, the Mexican has been blown away by Verstappen since his switch to Red Bull. The reigning two-time F1 champion is the current benchmark and below that there are drivers of the ilk of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Russell all recognised as leading prospective title hopefuls.
Of course, Stroll should continue to improve further, but suggestions he has the qualities to overcome any of that quartet would be scandalous based on the evidence that has been seen.
Ultimately the ex-Formula 3 champion lacks the same raw speed and execution over a single lap as the elite talents in the sport. Although his race pace is markedly better, his consistency in producing regular points hauls also comes up short, with his race craft being another notable weakness.
Even if he was to receive a dominant car hypothetically, any potential success would depend on who Stroll was paired up against. His father has already displayed a tendency to pursue some of the biggest names in the sport and the chances of Stroll overcoming a driver possessing the credentials Alonso has over a season would be extremely slim.
While Alonso is probably on the right lines regarding Stroll being an underrated asset to a team, the limiting factors that have been exposed repeatedly throughout his career make the Canadian unlikely to be adding his name to the list of F1 World Champions at any point, under any set of circumstances.