With rookie Sergey Sirotkin joining Williams in 2018, Lance Stroll becomes team leader in only his second Formula 1 season. His most vocal critic has been Jacques Villeneuve, but are his disparaging remarks really justified?
In 1996, a 24-year-old Canadian rookie with a famous surname took grand prix racing by storm.
He stepped into the Williams team, armed with the best car in the field, carrying the momentum of a convincing title-winning season in a different category from the year previously.
He benefitted from a rigorous test programme, finished on the podium on his Grand Prix debut, ended the season 19 points behind his teammate and went on to become world champion a year later.
In 2017, an 18-year-old Canadian rookie with a famous surname certainly caught F1’s attention.
He stepped into the Williams team, armed with arguably the fifth-best car in the field, carrying the momentum of a convincing title-winning season in a different category from the year previously.
He benefitted from a rigorous test programme, recovered from a scruffy start to his grand prix career by scoring a podium finish in only his eighth start and finished the season only three points behind his teammate.
While it’s foolhardy to compare eras – or to suggest Lance Stroll will be in the running for the F1 title in 2018 as Jacques Villeneuve was in 1997 – there are certainly some commonalites between these two Canadian grand prix drivers.
But Villeneuve has offered little support or praise for his compatriot thus far. And while he speaks from a position of undoubted authority – having won a world championship – is it not slightly strange that he appears to roast Stroll’s performances at every opportunity?
A change of tune
Perhaps oddly, with the benefit of hindsight, Villeneuve seemed quite upbeat about Stroll before the season started. He labelled Stroll “super quick” on the back of his European F3 title, with the caveat: “F1 is a different beast. And for the first time in his career he cannot be in the best car and the best team, where everything is in place for him to win, and where the going will be tough.
“We don't know how he will react to that. He's well-educated, well-spoken, so he could just grow and become amazing – or he could just collapse.”
While Stroll’s pre-season test form and first half dozen F1 races were under par – as he struggled with the transition to the sport’s top level – Villeneuve was consistently brutal with his critiques on TV and to anyone else who asked him about his compatriot.
And then, even after the fine Montreal and Baku performances, where Stroll scored his first points and podium respectively, Villeneuve kept the screw turned tight.
“He wasn’t quick in Montreal, but everybody broke down, he kept his nose clean, he got points, and that took a weight off his shoulders. You could see it [at Baku]. When everybody was banging into each other, he wasn’t, and his teammate broke down as well.
"Yes, he was lucky, but he was also quick, he didn’t do any stupid things, and he got on the podium. Nothing wrong with that.
“You still have to be real. Montreal was helpful and [Baku] was good, but that won’t change what I said earlier in the season.”
He further criticised Stroll by saying: “He did well, but also he’s the only driver who tests between races. That’s a little bit tough to swallow. Money has to have a limit, and that’s pushing it.
“They [Williams and Stroll] are circumventing the rules. It's not fair to the other drivers because he is the only one to have this privilege thanks to his money.”
Now that, pardon the pun, is slightly rich. After all, before his retirement, Williams’ Pat Symonds had likened Stroll's preparation programme to none other than that of Villeneuve.
“Jacques Villeneuve did a very focused programme with Williams in 1995, I know that they specifically went off to a lot of tracks, which weren’t where the teams were testing at the time,” he recalled.
“With all the guys who were proper test drivers, they went and did testing so they got the miles under their belt – but the focus was always on them developing the car rather than us developing the drivers.
“We’ve turned it around on this one [with Stroll], so it is a bit more like Jacques’ old programme of teaching the driver.”
Stroll is not the first racer with privilege and he won’t be the last. It is an indelible part of motorsport, whether you're talking the modern day or former eras.
By most accounts, Villeneuve himself was no stranger to it either. His surname will have certainly carried weight when it came to attracting deals and sponsorship.
After all, his big break in CART in 1994 with the Player’s-backed Forsythe/Green deal came on the heels of a third-place finish in Toyota Atlantic. The two drivers that finished ahead of him in ’93 – fellow Canadians David Empringham and Claude Bourbonnais – do not have a full CART campaign between them.
Villeneuve seriously excelled going forward from that point on. But is that not an indication that it is a little too early to pass judgment on Stroll's ultimate F1 potential? Especially as we saw flashes of genuine brilliance, like the Baku podium or him starring in wet qualifying at Monza.
Despite his tricky beginning in pre-season testing, Stroll at least rode out the difficult times in his learning curve. Villeneuve, of course, has nothing left to prove to anybody, but it's too tempting not to mention the fact that his two most recent full-time programmes – in World Rallycross and Formula E – started rough and ended prematurely (his FE career lasted all of three race weekends).
The Sirotkin challenge
The upcoming season will be quite a different beast for both Stroll and his Williams team, given the exit of Felipe Massa and the arrival of rookie Sergey Sirotkin.
The Russian will likely find he has much in common with Stroll, at least in terms of the criticism he’s going to face. Chances are he’s already used to it, given that his first appearance on the F1 radar in 2013 – a sudden Sauber role with an even-more sudden plan to fast-track him to grand prix racing – was met with little enthusiasm.
His credentials are different now, but he will reportedly contribute to the budget, and the fact he will be seen as the driver who, for now, has denied the heroic Robert Kubica a dream F1 comeback will have done the Russian no favours in the eyes of the fans.
But while Stroll's 2017 experience should make him the focal point of the team's upcoming campaign, Sirotkin is clearly no pushover. There was the obvious potential early in his career in Formula Abarth and Auto GP, there were the back-to-back third-place finishes in GP2 that established him as genuine F1 material – and then there was the Renault reserve role.
The French manufacturer did not ultimately promote him to a race seat, granted, but team personnel seemed to genuinely rate him, in both pure pace and understanding of the car – the latter a product of his engineering education. And he sure impressed Williams big-time when given the chance to pilot the FW40 at Abu Dhabi.
Given a year’s head start, Stroll has to assert himself over Sirotkin and lead Williams next year. But if he does beat the very capable Russian, that should come with recognition.
But, would he be granted that? Or would Sirotkin's inexperience be used to deny Stroll any credit? Now that might just be a good question to ask Villeneuve…