Will Stroll show his talent is worth more than his money in F1?
There is no denying the financial backing from his family has made things easier for Lance Stroll during his career leading to securing an F1 drive with Williams. Now it's time to show he deserves to be there, as Adam Cooper explains.
Rarely has the arrival of an F1 rookie prompted as much debate as that of European F3 Champion Lance Stroll, who turned 18 in October. Why the rush to put him straight into a Williams race seat? And how good is he?
Such questions are an inevitable result of the way he's been fast-tracked to the top rung by his businessman father Lawrence, whose "no expense spared" approach has not gone down well with everybody.
By definition, many racing drivers come from comfortable backgrounds, their early careers supported by family money. It's hardly a new concept – there's a sound reason why early motor racing history features so many aristocratic names.
In the modern era the cost of competing has become so great that just paying for the karting years is already a stretch, and many a promising career flounders unless someone like Red Bull or McLaren steps in to smooth the way into car racing.
Few have been lucky enough to enjoy family support that has taken them all the way to F1.
Max Chilton was one example, but he graduated with a back of the grid team in Manor, and had also done an apprenticeship in GP2. Stroll, in contrast, has made the jump straight from F3, and to a much higher profile team, and at a younger age.
It's impossible to say how much Lawrence Stroll has spent to get Lance to F1, and Williams is in no hurry to confirm what his contribution to the team's 2017 budget is. Given that Stroll Sr is said by Forbes Magazine to be worth $2.5bn it's fair to say funding has not been an issue from the day Lance first sat in a kart.
He's always had the best of everything: the best machinery, the best teams, the best preparation, the maximum possible testing mileage. Since he became associated with Williams that's included support for his F3 programme from the Grove team and its engineers, something that clearly didn't hurt his chances in a category where small gains can make the difference.
What can't be denied is that he's got the results on the track. He won the Italian F4 title in 2014, and the winter Toyota Racing Series in 2015. After a messy rookie F3 season that year he bounced back in 2016 to win the title by a comfortable margin. And that earned him enough points to guarantee himself an FIA Superlicence, without having to pass through GP3 or GP2.
In moving straight from F3 he follows in a line that includes the likes of Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Jenson Button and most recently of course Max Verstappen – an impressive list of high achievers.
There have been others of course, and a random pick could include Jarno Trulli, Takuma Sato, Christian Klien and Adrian Sutil.
It's still relatively rare for someone to make the jump without either racing more powerful single-seaters or diverting into the DTM or sportscar racing before F1, as was the case with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Paul di Resta and more recently Pascal Wehrlein.
As European F3 champion, and a holder of a Superlicence, Stroll is clearly qualified to be on the grid next season. What happens next will be up to him. Will he sink or swim?
"When it comes to Lance I think we out of a courtesy should reserve judgement," says deputy team principal Claire Williams.
"I think that considering his age he's achieved a huge amount. He's won every championship he's taken part in, particularly this year in the F3 championship.
"As everybody knows, Williams isn't a team that would put their stake into a driver that they didn't believe could deliver.
"We're a serious team with serious ambitions, and I am not going to put a driver in a car that I don't believe will deliver. I believe that Lance will. Yes, he's going to be a rookie, yes, he's going to make mistakes.
"But from everything we've seen in his test programme, he's a really fast learner."
Perhaps not surprisingly Williams is sensitive when it comes to Stroll's position as a driver who brings funding.
"There are commercial considerations for any team principal when they put a driver in," she says. "Alonso comes with financial backing, maybe not personal, but he attracts sponsors. Santander is there because of him. I don't understand why in this sport that is such a business there is such negative connotation around a driver that brings backing.
"And not only in F1. Motorsport as a whole is such an expensive business, you don't get into the upper echelons of motor sport unless you can find significant budgets to go racing.
"I don't know why people criticise drivers when they have financial backing, because if they didn't then so many teams in this sport wouldn't necessarily survive, and then this sport wouldn't survive."
Stroll himself is resigned to questions about the financial support that he's enjoyed.
"There's two ways it works," he said in Abu Dhabi. "So one way is you need to have a sponsor or a family member, someone who helps you from eight years old 'til whatever age you arrive to F1, if you arrive to F1. Without that I wouldn't have been able to move from Canada to Europe and pursue my dream.
"And then after that, no matter how much money you have and where you come from, if you don't turn the steering wheel left and right and go as quick as possible around the track, you don't win races. And money can't buy wins.
"Money can buy the opportunity, it can buy a seat in F4 and go-karts and F3. If you don't have the Superlicence points now, which requires winning championships like F4, F3, maybe GP2 if you don't win F3 – you need to get those 40 points, which I've done – you can't get into F1."
"Money doesn't get wins"
He rightly points out that it's not his fault if other youngsters haven't had the same opportunities.
"Money doesn't get wins, it just allows you to race, which is true. You can't deny that. It's a very expensive sport we're in, and there are plenty of drivers who haven't had that opportunity and are very talented.
"Which is really unfortunate. That's just the sport we're in. But I worked really hard, and without winning those championships, I wouldn't be here. I could have all the money in the world and finish last, and that wouldn't put me where I am today."
Many observers question the need to miss GP2, especially when a prime seat was waiting for him at Prema, the team that dominated the 2016 season.
"I think it was multiple things. I know we were just taking it year by year, and that's what we've always done ever since we even started go-karts. And we never try to look too far ahead in the future, and really just focus at the task at hand. This year F3 was obviously the goal and we achieved it, not only by a little margin, but by a big margin.
"I think without that big margin and the way we did it, and without some of the tests in the 2014 car, and the way it's gone and the way Williams have evaluated me, with all those things together I don't think I'd be here.
"There's multiple reasons why we're here today, and why we're not doing the step in between, why we're not doing GP2, and that's the way it is."
The cynical view is that in missing GP2 he avoids the risk of being beaten and losing the momentum that he now has. He'd still have the budget to make it, but it would be much harder for Williams to justify his graduation in 2018 after a mediocre season in GP2.
The other argument is that the best way to learn about F1 is by doing it, which is what Helmut Marko pursued with Verstappen.
"Well, I think first of all when you have an opportunity to go into F1 there's nothing that quite prepares you for F1 other than doing F1," said Stroll. "I think GP2 is definitely the step in between, but I think it doesn't prepare as well as actually competing in F1.
"There's nothing that prepares you for F1 other than doing the 21 Grands Prix in an F1 car. That's why I'm here today. I won F3, I dominated the championship, and if I didn't do those things and Williams didn't believe I was ready, I wouldn't be here."
He's adamant that he's already learned a lot over the past two years: "I think F3 is already a really good category to learn in. I think F3 is a very high level, and it's a car that teaches you how to drive. It has a lot of downforce.
"Not so much power, but a lot of grip, and it teaches you how to use all that grip, which F1 is all about, you have has a lot of downforce, a lot of power and you use all of that. I think that was a great school for me, and those two years really taught me a lot."
His F1 education started when Williams launched an intensive test programme. In past years that would have been normal – Jacques Villeneuve and Lewis Hamilton both did a huge amount of mileage in the months before their GP debuts – but under current FIA restrictions such preparation has been less common. However, Williams was able to call on a 2014 car, which doesn't fall under the rules.
"When the engineers go through run plans with him, when he gets in the car and he gives us feedback and they go through the data, he picks up everything he's told," says Claire.
"He learns, he gets in the car, and he doesn't make the same mistake again, or he improves on his time. I think that's everything we could ask of him at the moment."
The opportunity to log his first F1 miles in a controlled environment, away from prying eyes, has been invaluable. Stroll seems to have taken it in his stride.
"I haven't driven a tremendous amount yet," he explains. "I've had a few days, and what I've learned so far is that it's obviously very powerful. The power is a lot more than what I'm used to in F3.
"But you get used to it. It's another step, it's another car, the downforce is obviously incredible, there's plenty of it. It's another car, it's another step and I'm getting more used to it every time I'm getting in the seat.
"At the end it's just another car with four wheels, which I've been driving all sorts of different things my whole life. Go-karts, cars, F4, F3, F1 now. There's always challenges in each category, always new things to learn. Every step you make it always feels like it's the biggest step you've done in your life."
The FW36 may be obsolete, but it's a good starting point.
"Driving the '14 car is better than not driving any F1 cars before 2017.
"Obviously it's not this year's car, and it certainly won't be next year's car with the new regulations, but it's better at least making a step, getting a few days in a '14 car, and making a step from a '14 car to a '17 car rather than just going directly from F3 to F1.
"So every little bit will help, and as well off the track a lot of preparation will help. Being involved with Williams, working with them technically, getting me ready mentally and physically and all that, there's a lot of work that goes into that too. It's not only on the track, but I think off the track this winter we'll have a lot of work to prepare for the first race.
He's smart enough to know that it's not just about getting in and driving around – a lot of challenges lay ahead.
"I think in terms of one lap pace, it's another car, it's good grip, a lot of power, and you're able to push and use all that. Just like F3, which is what we're doing all the time, is pushing at 100 percent.
"And F3 is a car that teaches you how to deliver 100 percent out of a car, since it's very good and the downforce is really good, and it's a great car to learn in.
"It's also a great championship, competition is very high, you need to be good, and you need to be on your A game to win races and get poles and all those things. F1 is obviously tougher in many different ways.
"I think tyre management, fuel saving all these things are things I'm not used to and that's probably the most complicated thing at the moment that I'll have to learn throughout the season. There's no area in particular, it's all little details. So I'm just working on everything.
"Nothing will prepare as well as actually being in the race situation and having to do it next season in 2017. I can do as much preparation as I want, but I'll have to experience that real race situation and a real car and everything to really get used to that.
"Barcelona winter testing will be another opportunity to get a bit more understanding before the first race."
Will rules changes help?
Stroll is arriving on the scene just as F1 undergoes its biggest rule changes in years. There are two schools of thought – one says that it's a time when experience really counts, and the other argues that it's such a big re-set past data and knowledge is worth a lot less, and rookies are not at such a disadvantage.
"I don't think it's easier or more complicated, I think it's just different. Obviously it's a new formula. If you have experience, that always helps, there's no doubt about that. But yeah, to a certain extent maybe it helps me come in on a year like that, where everyone is I wouldn't say starting from zero, but from a little bit lower [than now].
"If I came in next season with the same formula as the last three years it would maybe be a bit harder for me to catch up. But I don't really know, I'm just going to prepare as well as I can, and go for it. I'm not going to try and make all those expectations."
What could be more of a challenge is the physical side, with higher cornering speeds and correspondingly higher g-forces making it tougher on everybody. He's got a lot of work to do.
"I wouldn't say I'm starting from scratch, because even in F3 we're doing physical training, and even before that we do it from a really young age.
"But I think it will be tough for 2017. I don't really know, but assuming everything goes to plan, and the tyres are a lot more grippy and the aero will work and the car will be four or five seconds faster or whatever they say, it's going to be physical.
"But I'm preparing as well as I can for it. Yeah it's a new challenge, not only technically, but also physically it will be tough. I'm looking forward to it."
As mentioned earlier, it's now in his hands. The unlimited budget has helped to propel him to F1, but it's not going to give him any advantage over his new teammate: he will have to get the job done on the track. And he's going to have to do it in the white heat of the spotlight.
"I'm still myself, still a racing driver like I've been my whole life. Whether it's F3, whether it's F1, it's a new step. Maybe there's more cameras, maybe there's more people, but I just see it as another racing series with other drivers with other race helmets on their head, and other teams competing to try and win races.
"I'm here whether its F1, whether it's F3, giving my 100 percent. And that's all I can do. More than that I can't do, and that's what I've been doing my whole career. I've won championships up to now, and it's helped me get to where I am today.
"Without winning championships I wouldn't be where I am today. But now now that's all behind me and I'm just looking to the future.
"New challenge, new year, working with a new team that I'm very excited about, that I've been getting along with up to now. I'm going to try and enjoy the journey as well, because it's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
It's going to be fascinating to see if he can silence the sceptics. Claire Williams is certainly confident that he can get the job done.
"Everyone knows that this team has been quite risk averse over its history," says. "But I think it's a great thing that teams are bringing in new drivers, I think that's what we need, we need new blood in this sport, and I think it's really exciting.
"I think we should give the guy a chance to prove the talent and prove that he deserves the seat. I wouldn't put him in the car if I didn't believe that he could deliver."
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