Back in 1992/3, as a Formula 1 wannabe, long before emailing became commonplace, I called various teams, sponsors, sponsor agents and technical partners seeking whatever openings they might have on offer. One of those I called was the then-boss of Tommy Hilfiger, at the time a sponsor of the (original) Lotus team. My call to the USA number went into voicemail, so I left a brief message requesting a call back.
The CEO of the fashion brand back then was Lawrence Sheldon Strulovitch, better to known to the current generation of F1 fans as Lawrence Stroll, chairman and substantial equity holder in Aston Martin Lagonda; lead of the syndicate that owns Aston Martin F1, the team formerly known as Racing Point (and a variety of other names) and set to race under that banner; father of F1 podium placer, Lance.
His passion for motor racing had taken Stroll into F1 with Tommy Hilfiger, as it thereafter did with other brands he acquired and grew before listing and selling, with the sports clothing label and Asprey (high end fashion accessories and jewellery) variously adorning Ferrari grand prix cars.
Stroll hails from a family of Québécois clothes merchants – comfortably off, not high-rollers – who presented him with Canadian rights to Pierre Cardin’s kiddies range on his 18th birthday “to do my best with”. Rights to Ralph Lauren’s collections were added, then Stroll looked further afield: not only globally, but other brands, too, including Michael Kors, which propelled him into Forbes’s multi-billionaire category.
Along the way he established Montreal’s Ferrari dealership and acquired arguably the world’s best Ferrari collection – it includes original and mid-engined versions of the GTO, a P4 330 and a LaFerrari. He also owns other collectibles such as McLaren and Ford GT plus the picturesque Circuit Mont Tremblant – host to the 1968/70 Canadian Grands Prix and a 2007 ChampCar round – situated northwest of Montréal.
Most of these ‘foreign’ models are now, though, said to be for sale as he focuses on rebuilding AML, which, appropriately enough given its James Bond 007 connections, previously hit the skids seven times. Before acquiring a controlling interest in AML he committed to buying road and track versions of its Valkyrie supercar, and it was while signing for these that he pitched a sponsorship deal for his F1 team. The question of taking control of the English brand arose during talks.
Little-known is that another shareholder in AML is former Ferrari president and CEO Luca di Montezemolo – the friendship harks back to the dealership and sponsorship days – who not only aided Stroll during pre-purchase due diligence but demonstrated his faith in Stroll by investing in AML. Another investor is Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff, while the Three-Pointed Star recently upping its holding from 4.5% to 20%.
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Stroll is justifiably proud of the latter transaction for it saves AML around $50 million (£36.5m) per year in research and development by providing next-generation access to powertrains, electronics and infotainment, the costs of which are crippling for low-volume manufacturers. Ferrari and Maserati draw off the wider Fiat group, Lamborghini and Bentley from VW and Rolls-Royce off BMW, but AML basically stood alone.
The foregoing proves he is not averse to combining business with his passion, with son Lance’s skills behind the wheel adding yet another dimension to senior’s petrol-head portfolio. It is, of course, easy to take swipes at Lance on the basis of having had the best kit provided by family wealth, but fact is he alone drove the cars en route to F4, F3, Toyota Racing Series titles, three F1 podiums and a F1 pole position.
Another statistic about Stroll Snr: Despite packed executive schedules he had not missed a single race his son participated in until last year’s Austrian Grand Prix – the absence being unavoidable due to urgent AML business. Consider that Lance started racing karts at the age of 10, moved to the USA’s Formula Abarth-type series at 14 and won the TRS title in New Zealand before switching to European series, and the paternal commitment is clear.
Notwithstanding his considerable achievements Lawrence is remarkably media shy. He’s said to have received a dressing down after an indiscretion to fashion journalists as a youngster and kept his lips sealed since. Apart from a single paddock appearance to make a statement – after Racing Point was found guilty of copying – he has not spoken to specialist F1 media, having granted interviews only to dailies or financial and fashion outlets.
Until this interview, that is: which followed a 30-minute discussion we enjoyed in his suite at the W Hotel in Abu Dhabi during the 2020 season finale. That was cut short as he desperately wanted to get trackside to watch his cars (and son) in action, but he promised to make amends – which he said would after his honeymoon – his second marriage – on the island of Mustique.
“We didn’t have many guests,” he tells me via Zoom from the Caribbean. “It was a very small wedding [due to] these times and travel restrictions. It was just a few close friends and family, but it was it was a lovely wedding – great weekend and a lot of them rented other homes on the island. We’re still seeing them on a regular basis.”
Familial pleasantries aside, it is clear Stroll has major aspirations for the Aston Martin brand, and views an F1 return as an integral part of the rebuilding process, an ambition which extends well beyond providing a cockpit for his son. What, then, are these objectives?
“Firstly, to bring the Aston Martin name back to Formula 1 is, I think, the biggest thing that’s happened to Formula 1 in decades. It’s not just another start-up team; it’s a team with a 107-year history, globally recognised as a pre-eminent leading luxury and performance brand.
“The whole history of Aston Martin, the DNA this whole company was based around racing, when they raced up Aston Clinton Hill; winning Le Mans in 1959 with Carroll Shelby [and the DBR1].”
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Stroll made his name by building brands with undervalued assets, and clearly this is one such project – in tandem with (re)building the shell of the team that was Force India and Spyker, Midland and Jordan before that.
“Not many people understand what it is to return a team to Formula 1, the financial magnitude and everything that goes with it. My plans and ambitions I made very clear when I became majority shareholder and executive chairman of [AML]. We’ve already checked many of those boxes.
“Since I started last April, it was monumental, the transformation, and I think it’s fair to say it was equally done to the Formula 1 team: last year to end the season fourth, and challenging what I think we deserved to be, third. You know, we had some bad luck, a couple of engines blowing the last few races.”
RaceFans exclusively revealed Stroll’s interest in investing in AML in December 2019. Would he have bought AML had he not already acquired the F1 team?
He pauses, then answers: “Good question. What really helped make the decision is one plus one equals three. I thought one of the ways to help transform the road car company was by having a Formula 1 team to market it. I was able to look at it through a different set of glasses than perhaps some of the other competitive bidders [of Force India] with this plan in mind.”
After further introspection the admission: “Probably yes, but not as quickly.”
His track record across various businesses is of a winner, and clearly that is the ultimate target for the team and brand. The next question is whether Aston Martin can win regularly on merit and titles as a customer-partner of Mercedes F1 Team, whether or not its parent company is a major shareholder in AML. Forget not that Aston Martin F1 Team is privately held – by seven high-rollers – while AML is publicly listed.
During the topsy-turvy Sakhir Grand Prix the (since departed) Sergio Perez provided the team with its first victory under Stroll’s leadership. Does that suffice, or does he harbour loftier ambitions for 2021?
“I think the first step towards winning next year will be regularly being on the podium, winning a few races – as we saw, we were capable of doing this – then constantly knocking on the door of second.”
Then he asks rhetorically, “Do I think we can beat Mercedes? Certainly not next year. We’re all very big realists. You know, with the new rule changes in 2022, we don’t know what they will mean exactly. The intent is to bring the field closer; will it succeed?
“If it succeeds, I think we can give anybody – not only Mercedes, [but] it could be Red Bull, could be Ferrari – a run for their money.”
There are, though inevitable comparisons with Ferrari, with automotive commentators oft referring to Aston Martin as ‘Green Ferrari’. A major difference apart from, of course, shareholder structures – both are listed but Ferrari’s F1 team is a division within the main company – is Ferrari operates out of one location, whereas AML’s Gaydon base and AMF1 (Silverstone) are almost 30 miles apart. Has Stroll considered bringing both operations under one roof?
“We did look at that prior to buying the extra 30 or whatever acres that we bought around the current (AMF1) factory at Silverstone. But, the heart of a Formula 1 team is its people, and due to the geographical living of [our] 500 employees, we said the detriment would outweigh any benefits because we would lose a lot of people who would not be prepared to drive an hour and a half each way [per day] or relocate.
“Silverstone is the Silicon Valley of Formula 1 teams; it’s all there within 20 minutes, all the engineering geniuses are based there, so to move out of that seemed contradictory and non-beneficial to the Formula 1 team, so from a premises point of view will be building there and staying at Silverstone.”
In closing I risk Lawrence’s wrath by posing the question every RaceFans reader deserves to have answered: is Lance a member of Aston Martin F1 Team on merit, and not because he is the boss’s son. His response, published here earlier today, is illuminating.
We end the first specialist F1 media interview granted by Lawrence Stroll – classic car connoisseur, fashion magnate, car company boss, F1 team owner, committed petrol-head, father of a F1 racer, recent bridegroom – well over allocated time. Don’t kid yourself: he was forceful, but open to taxing questions
Above all, during the interview he dispelled the notion that F1 is simply a playground for playboy billionaires and their play-sons – Lawrence Stroll is fundamentally a self-made man who knows when to invest and when to retreat. Don’t bet against his making a huge success of both AML and AMF1.
I was left with the distinct feeling that he will do whatever it takes to achieve his objectives. Having watched his progression in F1 – from clothing sponsor to team owner – over a period of almost 30 years that is not said lightly.
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