Since the announcement that Williams Martini Racing driver Felipe Massa will retire from F1 at the end of the 2016 season, rumours on who the likeable Brazilian’s replacement will be, have heightened, and surprisingly, or perhaps not, Lance Stroll now appears to be the frontrunner for the seat.
The Oxfordshire based squad are yet to confirm any details of their 2017 driver line-up, but it is believed that Valtteri Bottas will remain at Grove, despite not really managing to live up to the plaudits that surrounded him as he made his F1 debut. However, the Finn has been extremely consistent, and after matching Massa in previous seasons, has moved ahead of his soon to be exiting team-mate this year. In 2017 new rules are being implemented, and that coupled with the fact that one old hand is already leaving the fray, means Bottas’ experience of both the team and the sport could be invaluable.
Reports out of Finland from leading regional newspaper Turun Sanomat, are claiming that their countryman will indeed remain with Williams, and will do so alongside current development driver Stroll, whose billionaire father is believed to have offered a sum in the region of $35 million dollars to allow his son this big break, a figure the British team would find hard to ignore considering the current financial strains felt by many F1 teams. The deal is said to have already been agreed in principle, and an announcement will be forthcoming when Stroll finishes his current campaign.
Stroll, who will turn eighteen on October 29, is currently leading the European F3 Championship, the series from where the Red Bull Racing team plucked Max Verstappen, and is doing so in dominating fashion with nine victories to his name so far, although the talent contesting the championship this year is not considered to be of recent standards.
The Canadian currently sits 68 points ahead of Prema Powerteam team-mate Maximilian Günther, and is 148 points clear of third placed Nick Cassidy, which means he has now done enough to qualify for a F1 superlicence in 2017, with just two rounds of the season left to go. This is thanks to the 17-year-old having won the Italian F4 title back in 2014, before finishing fifth in the F3 series in 2015. Those previous accolades mean that Stroll need only finish in third place in this year’s championship to secure a superlicence for next year, something that is now a definite due to him having such an imperious lead over his rivals.
There is no doubt the Canadian youngster is a talented driver, but whether he has the required experience to make the step up just yet, is still to be determined. Verstappen has shown it is possible, but not every young driver given such an opportunity will have received the development the Dutchman was privy to during his upbringing, or necessarily perform to his high standards, and that all has to be taken into consideration when determining if the time is right to make that leap now.
Stroll’s development role at Williams, which he acquired back in November 2015, has seen him take part in an extensive simulator programme for the Grove based squad this year, in a programme similar to that enjoyed by Bottas in his early years with the team, which we now know was extremely successful, and so the experience of F1 is there.
With former favourite for the seat Jenson Button having ruled himself out of the running by confirming he would be taking a sabbatical from the sport next year, Stroll’s promotion to a full-time race seat with the Williams F1 squad is now very real.
The only other real contenders to stand in the Canadian’s way are likely to be Sergio Perez, although the Sahara Force India squad insists the Mexican has already signed to stay with them in 2017, and current Sauber F1 team driver Felipe Nasr, another driver who has major sponsorship backing, although he has not particularly impressed with his performances during his time with the Swiss squad.
GP2 driver Alex Lynn, who is also the current test driver at Williams, has an outside chance at claiming the position but has not achieved the outstanding results seen by Stroll this year, albeit whilst racing at a higher level, and what is considered to be a greater test of a drivers abilities. Another downside for the Brit, is that he does not bring the financial security that the other potential candidates possess.
With the Stroll family keen to see their son make the step up to F1, and money not an issue for Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll, unlike the bank balance at Williams, we could be about to see our next teenage sensation lining up on the F1 grid in 2017.