Aston Martin is in danger of facing a problem that Ferrari knows all too well.
In 2022, the two wins in the opening three races for Charles Leclerc — coupled with his second place in Jeddah — had him leading the championship comfortably and expectations were raised enormously.
By mid-season, any title hopes had all but gone, and by the end of the campaign second pace in the constructors’ championship was deemed reason enough to replace Mattia Binotto with Fred Vasseur as team principal. Yet the final standings showed a clear step forward from one season to the next, and overall progress.
Aston Martin is in the same position, having started the year as Red Bull’s closest challenger and with Fernando Alonso in typically metronomic form, scoring six podiums in the first eight races. But much like Ferrari last year, that strong start has been slowly erased by improvements from rival teams that have seen Aston slip to fourth in the constructors’ standings and with McLaren closing in.
That the gap to McLaren is still 78 points shouldn’t be overlooked — a sign of how far apart the two teams were early on — but it’s hard to shake the feeling of momentum and the fact that Andrea Stella’s team has closed in by 59 points in the seven races since introducing a major update in Austria is pretty remarkable.
If the pair end the season closely matched on points, it means they had similar results, but just because one has scored them later in the year than the other, the impression of each team is very different.
And the same could be said about one of the drivers, following Lance Stroll’s huge accident in qualifying in Singapore.
Stroll sat out Sunday’s race on account of feeling sore after the big impact at the final corner in Q1, a crash that had multiple triggers. Logan Sargeant’s impeding earlier in the session meant Stroll needed a final lap to try and get through, and the traffic chaos at the end of the session left him starting his crucial attempt within two seconds of Pierre Gasly ahead.
From there, an improvement was always going to be tough, but in a last-ditch Hail Mary he tried to carry too much speed in the final sector and the outcome was almost inevitable.
That withdrawal was the first time Stroll had missed a race since 2020, despite the pre-season injuries he sustained in a cycling crash just a few weeks before the Bahrain Grand Prix. Two fractured wrists and a fractured toe didn’t stop Stroll driving through the pain barrier to race and score points, the Canadian later saying he knew what a good car the team had and he wanted to use it.
Singapore was already looking like a tough weekend before that crash, and then starting at the back feeling less than 100% on a track that is so tough to overtake on was unlikely to yield much of a return. But Stroll was not present at all on Sunday, not even to personally thank his mechanics for the huge effort overnight to get the car into a position where it would have been ready to race if needed.
It’s only a minor thing — and a slight surprise given how highly some team members speak of Stroll’s work ethic back at the factory — but it’s the sort of touch that Stroll really could do with as critics will always be quick to pounce on his errors. And perhaps in the reverse of what you’d expect given his pre-season challenges, there have been occasions to do so with increasing rather than decreasing regularity.
Part of that is surely to do with the Aston Martin being less competitive than it was at the start of the season, with even Alonso only picking up one podium in the past seven rounds. But across that span, Stroll has scored a total of 10 points, while Alonso’s return is 53.
Alonso is pretty much as tough a benchmark as Stroll could have, and missing pre-season and not feeling he was fully fit until Monaco could perhaps have excused a few of the challenging weekends that he endured — with team-related errors not helping his cause in Miami. But each time it appears the 24-year-old might be turning a corner, he’s seemed to take two steps back this season.
A strong Barcelona compared to Alonso was then followed by an off weekend at his home race in Montreal, then a strong run in qualifying and the sprint in Austria didn’t carry through to a messy Silverstone. After that, solid enough weekends where Aston was lacking overall pace in Hungary and Belgium preceded a scoreless run since the summer break.
Not totally unlike pre-season, Stroll could really do with a riposte when he returns to the car this weekend. The issues of earlier in the year should have meant he was getting stronger as the year went on, and at some point if there are recurring outside factors that are hampering opportunities to maximize a result then the common denominator needs to be looked at.
I’ve regularly said that at 24, Stroll still has time on his side. While 136 starts provide a serious amount of experience to fall back on already at that age, it doesn’t seem to be helping him deliver the level of consistency he now needs.
Aston Martin absolutely needs more from Stroll to be able to compete against Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren given the strength of their respective partnerships. The biggest points gap between teammates across those three teams is Lando Norris (70% of total points scored) and Oscar Piastri (30%). At Aston Martin, that balance sits at 78-22% in favor of Alonso.
Only at Williams is there a greater disparity, and rookie Logan Sargeant is certainly coming under scrutiny for his future for not yet contributing to the team’s points total. Stroll has been used to criticism his entire career due to the added protection his father’s F1 investment provides, but that protection surely has a limit.
When I spoke to Stroll at Spa he insisted he doesn’t pay attention to social media or outside comments, and to be fair he doesn’t have to. But at the same time he made it clear that as a driver he was determined to improve his form and reduce the gap to Alonso, and the trend for the season does not match that target.
Reversing the momentum is as important for Stroll as it is for Aston Martin itself, otherwise the external views and perceptions become more likely to be widely held internally, too.