Few innocuous Formula 1 news pieces have produced quite as much social media fallout as yesterday evening’s reports that Williams Martini Racing is in the process of finalizing an agreement with Sergey Sirotkin. Autosport claimed that it had learnt that Robert Kubica was no longer in contention for the drive, following an analysis of his performance at the post-race tyre test in Abu Dhabi, all but bringing the curtain down on what would have been a fairytale comeback.
Whilst the veracity of Autosport’s story is yet to be determined, the report has triggered anguish among the many fans who dreamt of seeing Kubica on the grid again. Indeed, whilst Autosport stresses that Sirotkin had become the leading candidate on the back of a strong performance in the test, he is also believed to be bolstered by a financial package of upwards of £15 million from his sponsors, the Russian SMP Bank. Kubica fans will certainly be keen to emphasise the later.
However, beyond Kubica’s apparent fall from contention, the decision to put Sirotkin in the team alongside a driver as inexperienced as Lance Stroll is decidedly confusing. When, and indeed if, Williams confirm the Russian, the team will likely be subjected to a maelstrom of questioning. These are a flavour of some of the question the team’s press office may soon tire of…
How has Sirotkin’s career developed thus far?
The Russian’s junior career was rather checkered. Building on success in Italian F3 and a Formula Abarth title, Sirotkin would climb the ladder quickly and started his first season of Formula Renault 3.5 as a 17-year-old in 2013. His pair of seasons racing in FR3.5 were fairly anonymous, producing just a single win, however, would prove a springboard for an excellent rookie campaign in GP2; a series historically vexing for rookies. In a year where McLaren‘s Stoffel Vandoorne steamrolled the title, Sergey took a dominant win at Silverstone and third in the standings.
As the beneficiary of the outgoing champion’s vacated ART seat, Sirotkin was unquestionably the favourite for the 2016 GP2 title. Ultimately a scruffy season marred by crashes, spins and inconsistent pace put him firmly out of the championship picture. When he so sporadically enjoyed such almighty pace, and when eventual champion Pierre Gasly suffered such a turbulent start to the season, his failure to capture the title must surely be a nagging disappointment for Sirotkin.
Has Sirotkin been in contention for F1 seats before?
If his name sounds familiar it’s because Sirotkin was contending for F1 drives as early as 2013. A direly impoverished Sauber Team was linked with a takeover deal with three Russian investment firms linked to Sirotkin’s father, a deal that apparently would have culminated in a race drive for 18-year-old Sergey in 2014. Ultimately Sirotkin’s role with the Swiss team was never expanded beyond FP1 outings and the squad would look to alternative investors for 2015.
Salvation for Sirotkin came in the form a reserve role with the Renault Sport F1 Team. Since the start of 2016, the Russian has driven six FP1 sessions and undertaken additional testing duties. However despite the past two seasons seeing a lot of change within the Enstone team’s driver line-up, few reports ever linked Sirotkin with a promotion. Indeed, before Renault successfully negotiated Carlos Sainz Jr.‘s release, the team’s shortlist of candidates to replace Jolyon Palmer was thought to include Renault-affiliated F2 racer, Oliver Rowland. Did Renault rate Rowland more highly than Sirotkin?
Didn’t Martini impose limits on the team hiring a driver younger than 25?
Of course, the glaring question that surrounds the potential hiring of a driver more than a year younger than Pascal Wehrlein follows on the fact that the paddock spent the season profusely sidelining the 23-year-old German from the drive because of his tender years. It was conventional paddock wisdom that following Lance Stroll’s appointment, Williams title sponsor Martini had stipulated that one driver must be at least 25-years-old in order to carry out the brand’s promotional activities. It was believed that this memorandum was strong enough to bar the otherwise sound choice of Wehrlein from succeeding Massa.
Clearly not. Going into the final year of Williams’ contract with Martini, does the failure of the team’s title sponsor to exert any influence on the driver decision even foreshadow the brand’s withdrawal from the team? Or was the Martini memo simply a proxy through which Lawrence Stroll could have guaranteed his son a suitably experienced yardstick? Yes, this is not The West Wing, but with big players like Lawrence Stroll and SMP Bank founder, Boris Rotenberg investing in the same team, a certain level of political machination is inevitable.
Is Sirotkin a ‘pay driver’?
As a man who has enjoyed successes in the junior series, who was described by Renault’s trackside operations director Alan Permane as a driver deserving of an F1 chance and who reportedly made a positive impression in the Abu Dhabi test, Williams has no shortage of ammunition when it comes to batting away the inevitable ‘pay driver’ accusations. However, versus Sirotkin’s rivals for the seat, it becomes more difficult to see his merits. He naturally brings less experience than any of the other candidates, is not integrated into the team like Paul di Resta and versus fellow Renault-affiliate Oliver Rowland, has less junior series pedigree (although Williams maintains that they have made no contact with Rowland).
Gratuitously, Sirotkin is the only driver with a major backer. His sudden emergence as a candidate is very suspect; Massa announced his retirement in the wake of the Brazilian Grand Prix as was widely supposed for weeks in advance, and yet, at no point during this period was Sirotkin’s name intimated. Sirotkin’s outing at the Abu Dhabi test was a bolt from the blue, a bolt that is probably most feasibly explained by an offer from SMP Bank. Under the stewardship of Boris Rotenberg, SMP’s motorsport structure, SMP Racing, has been backing predominantly Russian drivers since 2013. Rotenberg even drafted former F1 driver Mika Salo as the outfit’s ‘Sporting Director’. Completing the SMP ladder by placing one of the founding members in F1 is a clear and present incentive.
How are the team going to manage a rookie and a teenager?
If Williams does confirm Sirotkin, it is difficult to see how the team could forecast 2018 as anything other than a transitional year. Impressive moments in Baku, Monza and Mexico City for Stroll in no way diminish the toils and tribulations the Canadian endured in what was a predominantly disappointing rookie year. He may already have a season of racing under his belt, but he is simply not ready to lead the team in 2018 and will require the support of a team-mate in order to make further improvements.
It is difficult to see how Sirotkin could provide that support when he will be focussed on getting himself up to speed. Perhaps the team will gravitate towards the wisdom of the slightly older Russian who has at least been a paddock fixture for a year longer than Stroll, however versus the expertise they could have fielded with Kubica, di Resta, Kvyat et al, it is difficult to see why the team would want to field such a virulently inexperienced driver line-up.
Wehrlein and Kvyat could provide contemporary experience: why not them?
With Massa retiring, surely the remit for his successor was to provide the team with that all-important backbone of race experience. Kubica’s race experience came conjoined to the risks surrounding his limitations, and both he and di Resta hadn’t raced in the hybrid era. Of course Toro Rosso refugee Daniil Kvyat has 2017 race experience, however, the Russian has been on a painful downward spiral ever since he was deposed from the top squad. A change of team would have been no guarantee of getting the once well-respected Red Bull protege back on-track. By contrast, it is very difficult to perceive why Wehrlein was never a frontrunning candidate.
Ultimately, however, Williams needed a driver with the speed and experience of Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez or Romain Grosjean to lead the squad forward. Unfortunately, the failure to attract star drivers is symptomatic of a team rapidly slipping down the order having been in contention for regular podiums only two years ago. It is simple realpolitik to say that a team on a negative trajectory inherently has to make compromises in order to regain a stable footing. Unfortunately, the prospect of such an inexperienced line-up in 2018 has the very real prospect of being the bruising culmination of Williams’ downward spiral.