With Williams confirming Lance Stroll for 2017, the big question now is whether the team's gamble of promoting the Canadian straight from F3 will pay off. Valentin Khorounzhiy looks at Stroll's career so far and assesses his chances.
The fact Lance Stroll will be racing for a major Formula 1 team in 2017 has been borderline common knowledge both within and outside of the sport for a while now, and yet it wouldn't be surprising if most fans' view of the Canadian was some combination of the terms "18-year-old" and "wealthy father".
F1 hopefuls, after all, aren't generally well-known until after they land their first contract in the championship – and Stroll has kept a comparatively low profile, not racing in any of F1's support categories nor taking part in any practice sessions.
But the F1 public will probably get to know him soon enough and, between now and the time he hits the track in practice/qualifying in Melbourne, most of the opinions you'll see will likely be shaped by existing predispositions – whether they be about F1, Williams, wealth or, notably, age (expect a certain Dutch Red Bull driver to be mentioned a few times).
For every person excited by one of F1's most revered, historically significant teams signing an 18-year-old rookie, there will likely be someone who absolutely despises the fact – and there was nothing Stroll could have in his junior career to change that. But he certainly gave it a fair shot.
The new normal
It's now been three seasons since Stroll had stepped up to the junior single-seater scene, having arrived from karting as a highly-promising Ferrari junior.
The first of those seasons was spent in the entry-level Italian F4 series, the inaugural season of which Stroll dominated. The other two years were in continental Formula 3, with Stroll becoming European champion on second attempt earlier this year.
In-between, he did an off-season stint in New Zealand's Toyota Racing Series – a championship that often serves as preparation for F3 – and won the title there.
Altogether, that's three fairly busy years, which is still not a lot by the standards of the junior single-seater ladder. It's why most would have expected the F3 title to be followed by a move to GP2, the most obvious direct feeder series for F1 (at least by design).
Among some of F1's more recent debutants, Esteban Ocon took four seasons and a bit to get there; Carlos Sainz took five; Jolyon Palmer needed nine and a season as tester. Even the extremely highly-rated McLaren man Stoffel Vandoorne will have taken six years in car racing before his first full F1 season.
But they aren't Lance Stroll's reference points. Max Verstappen is – Stroll himself has called him "the perfect example" for his path to the highest level.
The Dutchman did one season in F3 and was snapped up by Formula 1. And, like him or hate him, pretty much nobody will argue that Verstappen wasn't up to speed immediately, that he wasn't ready right away to light up the timing screens. And that means he will have changed perceptions, and altered the landscape of the junior scene,
Verstappen is, of course, a spectacular talent, and the things he did in his sole F3 season were dazzling. But, compared to him, Stroll has a pretty reasonable experience buffer - and perhaps the Canadian's three-year path to F1 is what constitutes as the new normal in open-wheel racing.
And besides, it's not as if Stroll hasn't done some pretty standout things in F3 himself.
Stroll was very good in F4, but it was a new entry-level championship, in which his closest rival – teammate Brandon Maisano, a former Ferrari protege himself – was not eligible to score points in the main category.
Stroll was very good in TRS, beating, among others, Maisano and Haas protege Santino Ferrucci in a head-to-head – but that campaign was built on consistently smart points-racing rather than outright domination.
Stroll was pretty good in his first season of F3, finishing fifth – but grabbed headlines for the wrong reasons, with a few unsavoury-looking crashes mid-campaign.
But then came 2016, and the Canadian reached a new level, garnering attention that now came for all the right reasons.
FIA European F3 series championship seasons
|Yr.||Driver||Team||Wins||Poles||Podiums||Previous open-wheel experience|
Italian F3 (2011)
Euro F3 (2012)
|2014||Esteban Ocon||Prema||9/33||15/33||21/33||FRenault (2012-2013)|
Euro F3 (2011-2014)
Italian F4 (2014)
Euro F3 (2015)
The numbers Stroll posted in F3 in 2016 were very impressive, although it would be unfair not to mention a few caveats.
For one, he did win his title with the super-good Prema team, which also helped him to the Italian F4 title, is currently crushing it in GP2 and has seen serious investment from Lance's father Lawrence.
And there's also the fact that the European F3 field this year was probably not quite as good as it had been in, say, the Ocon year, when the Frenchman had wins siphoned off of him by Verstappen and current BMW DTM star Tom Blomqvist.
But "not quite as good" obviously doesn't at all mean "bad", as there were plenty of guys worth keeping an eye out on in F3 this year.
And among those guys were Stroll's three Prema teammates – but only the Canadian was there out front, week-in, week-out, qualifying and finishing with a markedly better average than any of his peers.
He's gotten some good reviews from big names in the sport, too. Mercedes' Toto Wolff said that Stroll has been underrated due to the financial backing behind him, while legendary team boss Chip Ganassi reckoned the Canadian was "the real deal" after running him in the Daytona 24 Hours.
Long road ahead
Is he ready for F1 then? Well, we probably won't quite know before Melbourne – just like we didn't know if Jenson Button was ready or not back in 2000 – but the Williams folk should have a better idea than anyone else about Stroll's readiness right now, and they seem to be betting that he can cut it.
It's certainly not going to be easy. While Verstappen ran his first season against fellow rookie Sainz – a very quick rookie, but a rookie nonetheless – Stroll will go up against Valtteri Bottas, a driver who, in this author's opinion, is perennially underrated by pundits and public alike despite having quietly gone about establishing himself as the clear and obvious team leader at Williams.
Stroll certainly shouldn't expect to beat Bottas from the get go, but he should aim to be close. A big gap to your teammate, after all, never goes unnoticed in F1, and for Stroll it could indeed give ammo to those who believe he is not yet ready to mix it in the big leagues.
Whatever the outcome will be in the future, there's no denying right now that the Canadian is taking a risk jumping into a top-five team from the get-go.
But F1 is often at its most compelling when drivers and teams take risks, and whether Williams – and Stroll himself – made the correct call could be one of the biggest, most fascinating questions of the upcoming season.