The COVID-19 pandemic hit both Formula One and Lance Stroll hard last year, but it didn’t stop the Canadian driver from enjoying his best season on the circuit.
Stroll had to miss the Eifel Grand Prix last October in Germany after a positive COVID-19 test. But the 22-year-old from Montreal posted two podium finishes and his first career pole position (Turkish Grand Prix in November) to end up tied for 10th in the drivers’ standings.
That’s buoyed Stroll’s confidence heading into the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.
“In my mind it was a matter of time to get into a good car that could produce results, show what I can do and prove to myself what I could do,” Stroll said during a recent videoconference. “Last year was a great year in that sense ... I think it was a good indication of the potential this team has and we have as a group.
“We have a very similar package, the rules haven’t changed that much. There’s no doubt none of the teams have been standing still during the off-season but I am very confident we’re in another position to be competitive, to fight for good results. We just have to take advantage of that.”
Stroll was eighth in the second practice session Friday. Toronto’s Nicholas Latifi, the other Canadian on the Formula One circuit, was 19th.
Latifi finished 21st in the drivers’ standings last year, his first with Williams.
Mother Nature could provide drivers with their biggest challenge this weekend. Strong winds from various directions are in the forecast, which could result in sand being blown on to the track.
“It’s going to be tricky,” Stroll said. “It’s hard to imagine for people, I guess, who aren’t in the car how much of a difference a headwind and tailwind make to the overall grip and balance of the car that you get corner by corner.
“In a Formula One car, that’s just amplified times 1,000 because of all the aerodynamics and everything that’s on it. If the wind is switching 180 degrees overnight one day to the next, it’s a new track, new wind direction, new conditions. As drivers we have to adapt and I’m sure you’re going to see guys pushing the limits but getting caught up by wind, it’s going to make it exciting.”
Stroll’s team — which is owned by his billionaire father, Lawrence — will also feature a new look in 2021. The Racing Point squad has been rebranded to Aston Martin, which will have its first F1 car since 1960.
Stroll’s new teammate is Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion.
Racing Point finished fourth in the constructors’ standings last year.
“It’s very exciting to be wearing new colours, it’s a very exciting future for the team,” Stroll said. “I’m working with the same engineer, same mechanics on my car.
“There’s always some new faces but in general it’s very similar faces around the team. I’m definitely feeling a bit older and wiser than [when] I came into the pad dock for my first season.”
Stroll is entering his fifth Formula One campaign. He’s still seeking his first victory, but has finished third on three occasions.
The first came in 2017 at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. That made the 18-year-old Stroll the youngest rookie and second-youngest driver to finish on the podium at an F1 event.
The global pandemic last year forced Formula One to start later than scheduled and cancel a number of races, including the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. The 2021 slate opens a week later than scheduled as the Australian race was rescheduled to November but still features 23 races.
“At first it was a challenge adapting to a new lifestyle,” Stroll said. “Wearing masks, taking all the necessary protocols in terms of staying in the bubble and all that.
“I don’t think that’s any different from anyone who has a day-to-day job, a family at home and wants to be safe.
“The lifestyle we live now, with masks and God knows how many COVID tests, it’s just part of the way we live now. In a way it’s become normal.”
Formula One is also tentatively scheduled to return to Montreal in June. Stroll, for one, would readily welcome the chance to again drive in his home city, but only if it’s safe for both drivers and fans.
“I think we have to respect where Canada lies, where Formula One lies and the safety of everyone because the last thing we want is an outbreak from Formula One coming into Canada,” Stroll said. “I think we need to be in a safe place, we need to have a good plan for that race to go ahead.
“In an ideal world, we want to see Montreal, we want to see Canada get to a place where we can actually see life with the race. It would be a shame if such a great race with so much life and excitement were to go ahead with empty grandstands. I’d hate to see that but we’ll have to see where the world lies, where Canada lies in June and how that will work.”