After a year of two halves in 2015, Lance Stroll came back fighting in 2016, and the teenage Canadian driver excelled to take fourteen victories on his way to a well-deserved FIA European Formula 3 Championship triumph.
Continuing with Prema Powerteam for another season, Stroll took the championship by the scruff of the neck and put in performances that warranted the attention from Formula 1, and ultimately resulted in a promotion for 2017 to the Williams Martini Racing outfit.
It could have been a lot different for Stroll however, especially if you look at the first half of 2015 where he was under pressure and under scrutiny for a number of rash manoeuvres, some of which ended in high profile crashes, but the second half of his year saw him relax and the results come, and he carried this form into 2016… and then some!
Stroll won race one of the season at Paul Ricard when team-mate Nick Cassidy momentarily lost momentum out of the final corner whilst leading, but the Canadian did not win again until race eleven of the season at the Red Bull Ring, but his form in Austria and in the subsequent race at the Norisring in Germany was super consistent and heralded four race wins and two runners-up spots.
Further wins came at Zandvoort and Spa-Francorchamps before another great run for the final three events at the Nurburgring, Imola and the Hockenheimring that saw seven wins out of nine and two more runners-up spots as he won the championship by a convincing and comprehensive 187-point margin.
Who else but Stroll?
The fact that the remaining sixteen races of the season were shared out between ten different drivers also shows well on Stroll, especially with highly rated drivers such as George Russell, Maximilian Günther and Callum Ilott in the field, and it was really no surprise the championship was done and dusted by the end of the penultimate weekend of the year at Imola.
Four of those victories went to Günther, who along with Stroll, Cassidy and Ralf Aron secure Prema another Teams’ title, with the German finishing second in the championship, albeit substantially adrift of his champion team-mate.
Günther was victorious in race three at Paul Ricard after being eliminated from race two on the first lap after starting from pole position, while he also took victories at the Hungaroring, Zandvoort and the Nurburgring.
Both Cassidy and Aron took a victory a piece, the New Zealander finally finding a way to the top step of the podium at Zandvoort, while Estonian hope Aron took an early victory at the Hungaroring, although he often struggled for pace compared to his team-mates and only finished on the podium once more.
However the combined results of the Prema Powerteam quartet enabled them to dominant the Teams’ Championship once more, scoring 780 points compared to closest rivals Hitech GP, who scored 499 points.
Russell went into this sophomore season with high hopes on building on a positive 2015, with the Briton switching from Carlin to Hitech GP, but it was not the year either he or the team would have hoped for, with only two victories coming his way around the streets of Pau and at Spa-Francorchamps.
His Hitech GP team-mate Ben Barnicoat also saw the chequered flag first on two occasions, once at the Hungaroring and then again in the opening race of the Pau weekend, but like Aron, his season was far from consistent, and he only visited the podium again once more at Spa-Francorchamps.
The rookie championship went the way of Swede Joel Eriksson, who took his maiden victory at Zandvoort but could have had other wins, particularly at the Norisring when the Motopark driver was leading and was knocked out of the race by an error from Ilott. As well as his win, Eriksson took nine other podium finishes, and finished fifth in the championship standings.
His Motopark team-mate Niko Kari also found his way to victory when he took race one at Imola, but again inconsistency found its way into his season, with the Red Bull-backed Finn sometimes able to fight for the podium but at other points of the season would be struggling to break into the top ten.
Two Van Amersfoort Racing drivers also took victories during the season, with Ilott taking his maiden career open wheel victory at Paul Ricard before following that up with a further victory at the Red Bull Ring, and the Briton finished sixth in the final standings.
Anthoine Hubert was the other victor for Van Amersfoort, taking his triumph in his standout weekend at the Norisring that also saw him claim pole position and another podium. The Frenchman’s consistency towards the end of the year enabled him to break into the top ten in the championship.
The final win of the season, and perhaps the most prestigious of them all, went the way of Alessio Lorandi and Carlin, who took the honours in the Pau Grand Prix, traditionally the final race of the weekend around the historic French circuit. It was unfortunately just a flash in the pan for the Italian, who apart from a podium at Zandvoort struggled with consistency before Lorandi walked away from the team after the round at Spa-Francorchamps to later find himself a drive in the GP3 Series.
Best of the Rest
If there was a case of bad luck in 2016, it would befall Sergio Sette Câmara, who twice set a time good enough for pole position during the year only to find himself relegated down the field due to engine change penalties, and the second Red Bull-backed driver in the field was unable to match Kari’s win, his best result coming with a runners-up spot at Pau.
There were also hopes that Ferrari Driver Academy member Guanyu Zhou could show the kind of speed the Italian team were hoping for, but driving for Motopark, early promise that saw podiums coming at Paul Ricard and the Hungaroring were unfulfilled later in the season, and he often found himself looking at results outside the top ten, not really what the doctor ordered.
A team that will look back at 2016 with a sense of disappointment will be Mücke Motorsport, but especially Mikkel Jensen, who had gone into the year hoping of a championship challenge only for struggles all year long meaning he finished only once on the podium at Spa-Francorchamps.
The other Mücke machine took two podiums in the hands of teenager David Beckmann at Zandvoort and the Hockenheimring, but it was certainly a learning year in the championship for the young German, who, should he come back in 2017, will be there or thereabouts in the hunt for race victories.
Mücke certainly have hit a rut in the last couple of years, and need to spend the off-season looking into what has gone wrong for them in order to restart the climb towards the front of the field where they belong in 2017.
Jake Hughes made a cameo appearance for Carlin in the finale at Hockenheim, and the young Briton did his best amongst mediocre starts to take a podium finish in the final race of the year.
The team also gave European Formula 3 debuts to highly rated Britons Lando Norris and Daniel Ticktum, although both were ineligible for points in Germany and were forced to start both races from the pit lane, preventing any chance of points in any of the three races. However both drivers showed good speed throughout the weekend, and are likely to be front-runners in 2017.
Worrying scenes at the Red Bull Ring
With all the success of 2016, there has to be a mention of the horror crash that befell Zhi Cong Li, Ryan Tveter and Pedro Piquet in race one at the Red Bull Ring in May, which ultimately ended Li’s season due to injury.
Tveter had spun at turn six through the gravel trap but had ended up back on the racing line, although stopped on track, but team-mate Li was unsighted due to the dust of the gravel trap and hit, at speed, the back of the American’s car and corkscrewed in the air before landing, thankfully the right way up, in the gravel trap.
Piquet, who was following close behind, also struck Tveter’s now damaged car but had a far less trip through the gravel, albeit with broken suspensions, but Li was the main cause of concern, and the race was red flagged as he was attended to by medics. He was taken to hospital, thankfully conscious, but his injuries prevented a return in 2016, although he was briefly on the Macau Grand Prix entry list before being replaced by eventual winner Antonio Felix da Costa.
Following in the Footsteps of Verstappen and Villeneuve
Stroll’s excellent season and subsequent move into Formula 1 in place of Felipe Massa within the Williams Martini Racing team in 2017 sees him become the first driver since Max Verstappen to make the jump straight into F1 from Formula 3, and as such he will have the attention the Dutchman has had, especially in the early races.
Although backed heavily by his father and a former member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, there is no doubts that Stroll is an excellent prospect in motorsport, but only time will tell if the first Canadian to race in Formula 1 since Jacques Villeneuve can perform on the biggest stage of them all.
But what there are no doubts about is whether Stroll is a deserving FIA European Formula 3 Champion… the answer is a most resounding yes.