Earlier this week I argued that Renault should fire Jolyon Palmer as quickly as humanly possible. While a lot of my readers agreed, one of the most consistent comments was that Lance Stroll needs to go too. This is something I do not agree with, and here’s why.
Palmer is a 26-year-old with 26 Grand Prix under his belt. He has been entirely uninspiring in his season and a quarter in F1. He has been a poor ambassador for Renault with his press comments and an expensive driver with his consistent crashes.
In contrast, Stroll is an 18-year-old rookie. He has just five Grand Prix to his name and, were he to get to Palmer’s age in F1, he would have 160 Grand Prix. That’s the kind of time Stroll has on his side, and the kind of time he has to improve.
We have been spoiled in recent years with some true prodigies in F1. Since 2000 we have had six drivers make the top 10 youngest race winners list. In 2003 Kimi Raikkonen (23) and Fernando Alonso (22) got their first wins, in 2007 Lewis Hamilton (22) got his. In 2008 Sebastian Vettel (21) and Robert Kubica (23) joined the ranks, and last year Max Verstappen set a new bar for “what the hell! You can’t be that good yet” by winning the Spanish Grand Prix at the age of 18 years and 228 days.
The bar of expectations has been raised by an unprecedented amount for youngsters coming into F1 over the last 15 years, which is why after five races of difficulties and poor pace there are already calls for him to be dropped.
Stroll’s pace has not been what we’ve come to expect from a Williams driver. He is yet to out qualify teammate Felipe Massa, and is an average of 1.2 seconds off the pace of the veteran Brazilian on Saturday. That’s not a great record, but he was within half a second in China and had problems in Australia that left him well over two seconds back.
His pace on long runs hasn’t been good though. It started with him finding the limit of the car in winter testing, and costing Williams a lot of running with his crashes. Since then he seems to be taking a lot of care with his car and as a result being well off the pace. He also failed to finish the first three races of the year.
First it was a brake problem in Australia, then he had a coming together with Sergio Perez that was a 50-50, first lap racing incident and then he got speared by Carlos Sainz in Bahrain, being taken out through no fault of his own.
Since then he had an uneventful Russian Grand Prix where he finished 11th, and a deeply disappointing race in Spain where he finished 16th and last, coming behind Massa despite the Brazilian making an extra stop after pitting on the first lap with a puncture.
Lance Stroll came into Formula 1 with relatively little junior formulae success. He won a championship in 2014, ‘15, and ‘16, but the highest was the European Formula 3 title in 2016. Part of why Stroll got his seat was his pace, but a big reason was the financial backing he brought with him. Lance’s father Lawrence is a billionaire and reportedly spent upward of $80 million in getting his son through the junior formulae and making him the next in line for Williams. Even Williams bosses acknowledge the perception problem Stroll has.
"One of the very difficult things for Lance is the enormous pressure placed upon him," technical director Paddy Lowe said. "He's a driver with a lot of expectation around him from, not just people close to him, but across the board I think. There is a spotlight on him, on how he got here and does he really deserve the drive."
As a result of all the financial benefits Williams have received from Stroll family, the perception is that Stroll does not deserve his spot in F1, and as we have seen the early results are not good. However there is a good reason for his struggles.
This is perhaps the toughest season to be a F1 rookie in a long time. The increased G-forces and physical demands, the faster lap times that put pressure on them to compete immediately all combine to magnify any struggles.
We have seen drivers have issues with the quick snaps that can happen under acceleration this season. Daniel Ricciardo lost control in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, as did Antonio Giovinazzi in China. The shark fins have made them susceptible to wind gusts, which saw Max Verstappen nearly end up in the barrier in Spain. There are serious difficulties in getting these F1 cars around the circuit, and as such we have to be prepared to give young drivers, like Stroll and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, time to acclimatise.
It’s difficult to have patience in sport, especially when you are a team who used to regularly appear on the podium and now don’t. There is some subconscious comparison between Stroll and the man he replaced, Valtteri Bottas. The Finn had nine podium finishes in his time with Williams, coming close to a race win more than once and finishing as high as fourth in the Drivers Championship.
It’s understandable to note the difference in results between Bottas and Stroll, but it is also deeply unfair to the young Canadian. He is not Bottas, a man who was quickly in line for a promotion and has demonstrated his race-winning abilities already with Mercedes.
Williams aren’t the power they used to be. From finishing third in the Constructors Championship in 2014 and 2015, they were fifth last season and have comfortably been passed by Force India while watching Red Bull and Ferrari restore their dominance over them. Williams in 2017 are not the Williams of the late 1990’s we all like to remember.
Stroll may be slower than Massa right now, and struggling to score points for a team that we are all used to seeing firmly near the top, but as an 18-year-old rookie we have to be patient with him.
If come November he is still well behind Massa and has produced so few points Williams have slipped further behind then yes, I will join the bandwagon of calls for Stroll to go, but right now let’s just remember that not every young driver in F1 is a prodigy ready to fight at the top immediately. We have been spoiled, and Stroll simply isn’t Vettel or Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t compete one day.