Lance Stroll Is a Risk Williams Didn't Need to Take for 2017 Formula 1 Season

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2016

Canadian driver Lance Stroll poses for a photograph following the announcement by Williams Martini Racing of their driver line up for the 2017 FIA Formula One World Championship at the team headquarters in Grove, west of London on November 3, 2016.
Canadian teenager Lance Stroll will replace veteran Felipe Massa in Williams's driver line-up for the 2017 season, the British team announced on Thursday. Stroll, who turned 18 last week, will line up alongside Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, who will be entering his fifth successive year with Williams.
 / AFP / Adrian DENNIS        (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

When the inevitable question came, Formula One's latest boy wonder dealt with it as well as he possibly could.

As deputy team principal Claire Williams mused, per Sky Sports, the team were "really, really excited" as they announced their 2017 driver lineup on Thursday morning, confirming teenager Lance Stroll would replace the retiring Felipe Massa at the end of this season.

The new partnership between Stroll and Valtteri Bottas, she declared, would mark "a new chapter in Williams' history," generating renewed interest in a team who have been all too easy to overlook over the last two years.

Yet the question—the question that needed to be asked—risked darkening the mood slightly, and there was no easy way of putting it.

Was there a danger that Stroll—son of Lawrence, the fashion tycoon worth $2.4 billion, according to Forbes—would be dismissed as little more than a pay driver of the highest order?

"Everyone has their own opinion, I can't change that," the 18-year-old explained, per Sky Sports. "I come from money, I'm not going to deny that, but I believe I've earned my shot in F1 because I've won every championship that I've competed in."

True, Stroll has won every series he has participated in—culminating in his FIA European Formula Three triumph in 2016 when, in a category that Max Verstappen once contested in and Esteban Ocon conquered in 2014, he won 14 of a possible 30 races and secured the title by almost 200 points.

But here's the thing, the lingering suspicion clouding almost every judgement of the Canadian: Was Stroll's success in junior single-seater racing a natural result of his vast talent behind the wheel? Or did his sheer wealth put him in a position where it was near-impossible to fail?

That was why the news of Stroll's promotion from a development-driver role was greeted with so much discomfort, so much caution, so much cynicism, and why it will be difficult to assess his true credentials until the beginning of 2017 at the earliest.

Because, make no mistake, Daddy Stroll's money, power and influence have been at the root of the youngster's achievements to date.

As reported by Germany's Auto Motor und Sport (h/t Autoweek), Stroll Sr.'s investment in the highly successful Prema F3 team guaranteed his son No. 1 status in 2016, with rival George Russell expressing his frustration with Stroll's treatment after the first round of the season, per Autosport's Marcus Simmons.

Mentored by Luca Baldisserri, the former Ferrari sporting director who followed him from the Prancing Horse's young-driver scheme at the end of 2015, Stroll benefited from F1 expertise at a junior level, providing him with a clear advantage over his fellow competitors.

As Stroll took care of business on the track, his father reportedly paid the bill for a state-of-the-art simulator to be constructed at Williams' factory, which—get this—was off-limits to Bottas and Massa, as it only replicated the sights, sounds and speeds of an F3 cockpit.

And when it became clear he would be succeeding Massa, Stroll began a private test program with a 2014-specification Williams car, taking him, 20 Williams employees, five Mercedes engineers and two specifically built Mercedes engines anywhere from Silverstone and Monza to Yas Marina and the Sochi Autodrom.

That mileage will ensure Stroll will be among the best-prepared debutants of the modern era, but just how beneficial will all those laps be against the backdrop of the significant regulation changes in 2017?

Increased downforce levels and wider tyres will make the cars more physical to drive than at any stage over the last decade in 2017, potentially dispelling the long-held myth that new rules offer an ideal opportunity to throw a rookie in at the deep end.

Although that may be nothing a Stroll-built, Lance-only gym couldn't solve, the new regulations could expose the drivers in their late teens and early 20s—including Stroll, Verstappen and Ocon—whose bodies are still in the process of maturing.

Could the new demands of the 2017 F1 cars hurt Verstappen's championship chances? His concerns should be shared by Stroll and others.
Could the new demands of the 2017 F1 cars hurt Verstappen's championship chances? His concerns should be shared by Stroll and others.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

And if that proves to be the case and the new-generation cars are too brutish for a teenager to manhandle around Spain's Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for 66 laps on a warm, mid-May afternoon, Williams' signing of the second-youngest driver in F1 history could be irresponsible in the extreme.

Especially when the likes of, say, 24-year-old Felipe Nasr—best described by F1 journalist Peter Windsor as a hybrid of Massa and Bottas—and 22-year-old Pascal Wehrlein would have jumped at the chance to race a Williams FW40, arrived with decent commercial advantages and represented much safer bets.

The Stroll subsidy—worth around £30 million, according to Craig Slater of Sky Sports News HQ television—will come in handy for Williams, whose slide from being Mercedes' closest challengers to a probable fifth in the championship in two years is the price they have paid for being a modestly backed independent team.

Yet while that considerable boost in funds will assist the development of their cars, taking a punt on a still-unproven talent is an almighty risk Williams—so often criticised for their cautious, unadventurous decision-making in recent seasons—didn't need to take.

For every Claire Williams who tells the team's official website how Stroll is a mature, talented and enthusiastic young man, there will be someone uploading that footage of him causing a huge crash at Monza.

For every Toto Wolff who insists "people don't recognise how good he really is" and argues he is even more mature than Verstappen, per Motorsport.com's Rene Fagnan, there will be somebody who shows you that clip of him suddenly changing direction on the Kemmel Straight at Spa (sound familiar?).

In truth, nobody quite knows just how good Stroll is and how good he could become, whether this particular rich kid's hobby has gone way too far or whether he will soon emerge as a solid grand prix driver, a potential race-winner and even a world champion.

But one thing is for sure: As he competes in the pinnacle of motorsport alongside a driver as fast and consistent as Bottas, there will be no place to hide.

     

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