Opinion: Why Sirotkin is the right driver at the wrong time

by William Brierty

The saga is over. After six months of exhaustive talk of power unit rebates, fairytale comebacks and shootout tests, Williams Martini Racing has at last confirmed its 2018 driver line-up. However, with Sergey Sirotkin seeing off the competition from the likes of Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta, fans have been quick to portray his appointment as a symptom of a team on the cusp of crisis.

Certainly, the race for the final seat on the 2018 grid appeared to rather rapidly descend into a bidding war. Whilst initially the team looked committed to making its decision in relation to rigorous test evaluations, increasingly it has appeared that the driver’s financial credentials have proven more potent in attracting the team’s attention. All of the drivers under consideration, with the likely exception of Pascal Wehrlein, were thought to have sponsorship packages in the region of £8million. Courtesy of SMP Racing, Sirotkin’s initial endowment would almost double in the wake of his Abu Dhabi test, swelling to a reported £15million.

This, many of the fans and pundits say, is the decisive factor in the 22-year-old’s deal. For many, it evokes memories of the decision to hire Pastor Maldonado and his large suitcase of Venezuelan oil money over the impressive young incumbent Nico Hulkenberg. For many, the arrival of another major backer alongside the Canadian billionaire looks set to paralyse the team, and further stifle a squad already on an alarming downward curve. For many, Sirotkin is a definitive ‘pay driver’ having been linked with a drive at Sauber as early as 2014 due to his extensive backing.

However other perspectives are available. To a great extent, Sirotkin’s junior CV vindicates him as a thoroughly legitimate candidate, and as a driver who could justify an F1 career on ability alone. His two seasons in Formula Renault 3.5 weren’t stellar, however, the 2011 Formula Abarth champion had made an alarming leap from Italian Formula 3 which perhaps explains his initially sluggish performance.

Credit: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service

However, his rookie year in GP2 was excellent. Driving for the sporadically pacey Rapax team, the Russian would outscore well-respected, well-seasoned drivers like Mitch Evans and Raffaello Marciello, finishing the season third in the standings. At Silverstone, even the supreme 2015 champion Stoffel Vandoorne couldn’t outpace Sirotkin, as Sergey went on to collect an utterly dominant victory from pole position.

His sophomore campaign was more ambiguous, as a widely-muted title assault fell afoul of errors, however, the Russian was still prone to unattainable bouts of blistering speed. At Hockenheim, he would still collect a commanding victory despite effectively having to serve two pit-stops. Certainly, there were rough edges; a crash in Monaco threw away a brilliant pole position, and a clumsy spin in Barcelona appeared rather embarrassing; however, there were undeniable flashes of a driver with genuine F1 potential.

In 2017, Sirotkin would team that impressive CV with an increasingly lofty paddock repute. Renault Sport F1 Team‘s trackside operations director Alan Permane has been especially unequivocal in his endorsement of the young Russian’s F1 prospects, saying, “I think he’s got the pace. I really do. And certainly he’s got, let’s say, the work ethic.” His test outing for Williams in Abu Dhabi clearly also left an impression, and whilst many saw the post-race test as coronation parade for Kubica, it was obviously not the Pole who made the biggest splash. Reports suggest that Williams’ extensive number-crunching in the subsequent days put Sirotkin firmly ahead of Kubica, on short run pace especially.

As a well-respected, winning driver who performed so admirably in the evaluative test, Sirotkin’s candidacy arguably makes more sense. The £15million from SMP Racing could even be considered little more than an added bonus versus a driver who would arguably be a credible choice regardless. In isolation, Sirotkin is a thoroughly rational choice. But that is precisely the point: driver deals do not take place in a vacuum. Versus the driver he will be partnering and versus the other candidates for the seat, Sirotkin’s appointment is nothing short of baffling.

Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Williams

Of course, Robert Kubica was Sergey’s most infamous rival for the seat, but putting aside spiralling talk of fairytale comebacks, unquestionably the most vexing subplot of Williams’ 2018 driver saga was Pascal Wehrlein’s apparent invisibility. Going into the season, most paddock sages surely would have picked the Mercedes protege as Felipe Massa‘s natural successor. Pascal would vindicate that status with nothing short of an outstanding drive to eighth in Barcelona.

However whilst the German was ostensibly the eyes-shut pick, his chances ultimately became mired in the smokescreen of an alleged restriction from title-sponsor Martini on a pairing of drivers both under the age of 25. Clearly, this wasn’t the case: Sirotkin is almost a year younger than Wehrlein. Whilst the manner in which the ‘Martini memorandum’ was allowed to uproot Wehrlein’s hopes is a tale that is yet to be told, it perhaps has its roots in very softly whispered doubts about Pascal’s work ethic, although similar gossip didn’t fail to endear Kevin Magnussen to Haas.

However more broadly, it is difficult to see the comparative appeal of the Russian rookie versus a driver who has already shown tremendous speed in F1 and taken title honours in the uber-competitive surrounds of the DTM. Sirotkin, by contrast, is yet to win a title in anything loftier than Formula Abarth. Clearly, the monetary clout first of Kubica’s Polish oil company and latterly of SMP Racing proved decisive in distracting Williams attention anyway from the talented German.

But the comparative virtues of Sirotkin’s rivals are not nearly as troubling as the shortcomings of the driver he will be partnering. Had Renault not been able to coax Carlos Sainz Jr away from Toro Rosso, the team’s former reserve driver would have been a very fine candidate to line-up alongside Nico Hulkenberg for 2018. Similarly, had Williams not been approached by a certain Canadian billionaire in 2016, Sirotkin would have made a very respectable team-mate for Massa née Bottas in 2017. Instead of Lance Stroll. Yes. But as well as Stroll? It is difficult to see how Williams will be anything less than fundamentally weakened by their inexperienced driver line-up in 2018.

Credit: Williams F1

For reference, Williams’ most experienced driver in 2018 will be a driver who was on average more than sixth-tenths slower than Massa in qualifying. Stroll admittedly scored a podium in Baku, and was superb in the torrential rain in Monza, but he faces massive developmental challenges to attain a more consistent platform of performance. With Lance more than a second slower than Massa in the final two races of the year, he already faced an uphill battle to get himself up to speed in 2018 before he was partnered with a rookie. Inexperienced line-ups are not intrinsically a detrimental thing, but Williams’ duo is certainly not the same calibre of Toro Rosso’s former pairing of rookies Verstappen and Sainz.

Williams has attempted to diffuse the consequences of their inexperienced driver line-up by drafting Robert Kubica as the official reserve and test driver, with the potential for extensive pre-season and in-season mileage. However just as Kubica’s inexperience of contemporary machinery – of the hybrid powertrains especially – impaired his candidacy for the race seat, it also undermines his value as a third driver. Robert’s latent experience and gravitas may yet prove invaluable to Williams, however, a technical understanding forged on sporadic test outings has limited veracity.

Williams ultimately needed experience and speed in the driving seat, a figurehead that could lead the team out of its downward spiral. The team’s failure to attract ‘smoking gun’ candidates; such as Sergio Perez or Romain Grosjean; is the root cause of this entire saga, a saga that now probably would have been best avoided by retaining the experienced Massa. The fact that Williams was not an attractive property to either Perez or Grosjean – drivers who both suffered deteriorating relations with their incumbent team in 2017 – is a telling symptom of the squad’s troubling trajectory. Sirotkin himself is not symptomatic of Williams’ proto-crisis. He is a credible driver who should be afforded respect. However, he is unquestionably making his F1 debut with the wrong team at the wrong time.

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