With the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix just days away, the spotlight will be well and truly on the country’s only current F1 driver, Williams’ Lance Stroll, but perhaps not the for the reasons he’d have hoped.
Six races into his debut season, it’s fair to say things have not gone well so far for the 2016 Euro F3 champion. He’s yet to score a point and has only seen the chequered flag in two races to date.
But why is Stroll struggling so much, and has Williams made a big mistake in promoting its young driver so early into his career? It may be too early to say, but so far, the statistics do not make good reading for the young Canadian.
First of all, the points table does not lie. Williams has only 20 points on the board, despite arguably having the fourth quickest car on the grid, and all of those have come from the veteran team leader, Felipe Massa.
Remember, this is the same Massa who was out-qualified 17-4 by Valtteri Bottas last season and announced at the Italian Grand Prix that he would be retiring from Grand Prix racing altogether. But for Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement, Massa would not have raced this year, and at 36 years of age, it’s fair to say his best years are behind him.
Not only does Stroll sit at the foot of the points table, but a closer look at his results this year suggest he is considerably off the pace of his more experienced teammate.
In six races, Stroll is yet to outqualify or finish ahead of Massa, with his best result being 11th place in Russia. It’s worthing noting that Massa finished ahead of Stroll in that race, despite having to make an extra pit stop for a slow puncture.
Looking at the number of racing laps each driver has been ahead of the other, Massa leads his teammate 82% of the time, but even that figure is skewed in Stroll’s favour due to Massa’s forced pit stop on lap one of the Spanish Grand Prix.
Assuming Massa would have remained ahead without that issue, the figure stands at just three laps. Three laps, in six races, that Stroll has been ahead of his teammate on track, and even those were immediately after Massa had made a pitstop.
Dig a little deeper, and Stroll isn’t just struggling in the races, he’s considerably off the pace throughout the entire weekend. The gap is on average 0.836 in Massa’s favour throughout practice, and 0.839 during qualifying. Despite not being renowned for his one-lap pace, Massa has made Q3 five times already with an average position of eighth, while Stroll has made it through just once, qualifying fifteenth on average.
Even more worrying to Williams, will be Stroll’s radio communication during the recent Monaco Grand Prix. At around three-quarters distance, Stroll reported back that he was concerned by brake and tyre temps during a safety car period, saying: “I don’t know what to do, please help me.”
It may be normal for a rookie to seek assistance during a race, but it’s worth remembering that Stroll has had more preparation than any other ‘rookie’ in recent F1 history. It’s rumoured that Stroll’s father has pumped more than $50m into the Williams team to secure a race seat for his son; investing in simulator time, engineering support, and even several private test sessions in a 2014 Williams.
Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams has been quick to defend her driver, slating the recent criticism he has received as “grossly unfair”. Putting on a brave face may be the team’s only choice in the short term, but Stroll’s lack of results will no doubt be a cause for concern if they continue beyond the summer break.
Sponsors, historically, do not tend to like being associated with failure or the bad press that comes with an underperforming driver, and this may feel like Deja Vu to the Williams team. Back in 1999, Williams hired reigning CART champion, Alex Zanardi, but fired him after just one season with the likeable Italian failing to score a single point. A reminder that no driver’s seat is safe if the results do not come.
Stroll is in no danger of suffering a similar fate any time soon, but Williams must find a solution quickly to avoid sliding further down the constructors’ championship. Last year, the difference between fourth and sixth place was worth as much as $17m; half the amount Stroll’s drive this year was rumoured to have cost.
With only a six-point buffer over its immediate rivals, and even struggling Sauber managing to score points, getting Stroll up to speed must be Williams’ prime focus in the coming races.