Formula 1: Lawrence Stroll saves Force India, but for how long?

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 20: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks with Esteban Ocon of France and Force India in the Paddock after practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 20, 2018 in Hockenheim, Germany. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 20: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks with Esteban Ocon of France and Force India in the Paddock after practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 20, 2018 in Hockenheim, Germany. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images) /

Whilst the Lawrence Stroll-led consortium has rescued Force India from administration, several questions remain over how the ownership change will affect the Formula 1 team in the long run.

Coming into the 2018 Formula 1 season, it was no secret that Sahara Force India faced a dire financial situation, which ultimately caused delays in their development and upgrade schedule, dropping the team from the comforts of sitting “best of the rest” in the constructors standings during 2016 and 2017 to sixth place with 59 points, 42 less than their total at this stage last year.

Triggered by legal action brought on behalf of Sergio Perez regarding unpaid wages and intended to “save the team”, Force India were placed into administration by the London High Court on the eve of last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

With the future of Force India effectively hanging in the balance over that weekend, things did not fare much better on the track, as both drivers were eliminated in the first phase of qualifying and finished well outside of the points.

This would be the fourth Grand Prix that Force India had left empty-handed this year, along with the Australian, Chinese and French Grands Prix, a mark the team have not exceeded since eight pointless races in 2013.

These were truly dark days for Force India, but not wholly unfamiliar to the team, which faced similar money troubles in their previous incarnations as Jordan, Midland and Spyker from 1991 until the sale to Vijay Mallya in 2007.

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Enter Lawrence Stroll, the billionaire father of Williams Martini Racing driver Lance Stroll and the newly appointed majority shareholder of Force India after administrators accepted an undisclosed bid from a consortium of investors, spearheaded by the Canadian businessman.

The deal, confirmed on Tuesday evening, guarantees outstanding payments to the team’s creditors, and most importantly, ensures that they can keep their cars on the Formula 1 grid for the foreseeable future, which secures the employment of the team’s 405 staff at their Silverstone factory.

Force India have been saved and will get to race on, all but certainly under another name and livery, but nevertheless, this is fantastic news for Formula 1. The sport simply could not afford to lose another team, especially the one widely heralded as the most cost-efficient on the grid for the past few years.

Although their most critical hurdle has been cleared and the team live to fight another day, evidently Force India face more challenges and uncertainty under changed ownership, particularly behind the wheel and with their performance on the track.

Obviously, Lance Stroll is essentially guaranteed to move from Williams to drive for his father’s team (I mean, it is basically the whole reason for Lawrence Stroll’s investment). The only question is whether it happens before the Belgian Grand Prix in two weeks or it is delayed until the 2019 season.

Regardless of when, the writing is on the wall, and it means that Esteban Ocon and/or Sergio Perez will be squeezed out of the team and need to find another seat.

Largely dependent on Williams’ financial situation following the end to their sponsorship agreement with Martini and the expected loss of funding from Lawrence Stroll, both drivers could potential serve as a straight swap to fill the void at the British team.

For Ocon, it could likely be thanks to a substantial investment and car components deal between Mercedes and Williams that would basically turn the team into a junior development stable for the Silver Arrows, comparable to Toro Rosso for Red Bull Racing. The junior development stable could the likes of the 21-year old Frenchman, George Russell and Pascal Wehrlein.

In contrast, Perez could offer sizable funding to Williams with his extensive network of sponsors. The Mexican has also been linked to Haas, with the North American connection an appealing prospect for both parties.

Whatever the end result, the bottom line is that Force India will have a weakened driver lineup because of the “unavoidable” addition of Stroll.

Now, this is not to say that Stroll is completely out of his depth in Formula 1. Even his most ardent critics have to acknowledge the signs of promise shown with a podium at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and tremendous performance to qualify on the front row in wet weather conditions for the 2017 Italian Grand Prix.

Stuck in the consensus “worst car on the grid” this season, Stroll has managed to score Williams’ only top 10 finish of 2018 on the streets of Baku, and whilst being outqualified by teammate Sergey Sirotkin (5 to 7), he leads the battle on Sundays (6 to 5; both drivers retired in the German Grand Prix) through the season’s first 12 races.

The point is, Stroll might not have the insanely special talent of Max Verstappen or Charles Leclerc to be considered a “future world champion”, but he is not necessarily the worst driver currently racing in Formula 1 despite the fair and consistent criticism heaped on him over his 32-race career, either.

However, it is also abundantly clear that Stroll would not have risen through the junior categories so quickly and into Formula 1, if at all, without the support of his father’s wallet.

Lawrence Stroll reportedly spent $80 million to help get his son a seat at Williams for 2017, involving the purchase of the Prema Formula 3 team, employment of top engineers, exclusive simulator work and an eight-leg test program in a 2014-spec car, with engines specifically supplied by Mercedes.

Former Williams Chief Technical Pat Symonds admitted the following, according to The Drive.

"“The last rookie with that many kilometers of testing for his debut was Jacques Villeneuve.”"

Evidently, “pay drivers” are nothing new to Formula 1, and the Stroll family is more than entitled to use their wealth to give Stroll the best chance at success (good on them!).

That said, Lawrence Stroll’s purchase of Force India, motivated solely to put his son in a better car, places the team in a uniquely fragile scenario for modern Formula 1, and it could have potentially dangerous long-term consequences if everything does not go to plan.

Similar to the situation that Williams now find themselves in, it is not too difficult to imagine Lawrence Stroll pulling his funding from the team and taking it elsewhere in the paddock if they fail to deliver his son with a competitive car or he is not achieving satisfactory results.

Likewise, division may grow within the team between management and ownership, because Lance Stroll will never have to be held accountable or face the consequences of losing his seat.

Moving forward, Force Stroll (?) need to put an experienced driver, whether that is Sergio Perez or someone else, beside Lance Stroll in the garage to help him develop the car and maximize their budget.

Otherwise, the team seem destined the repeat the mistakes of Williams. They have severely missed the feedback of Felipe Massa since his re-retirement at the end of last season.

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All in all, there is little doubt that this is a good move for Formula 1. Whether it was the right one remains to be seen, and Force India might yet face substantial challenges down the road, but Lawrence Stroll’s investment has ensured that there will be 20 cars on the grid in 2019, and for better or worse, his son Lance will be driving one of them.