I’ve never begun an article with a disclaimer but perhaps I need to make an exception for this one. The title may seem to give away the impression that the writer has perhaps joined the Jacques Villeneuve’s “ridicule Lance Stroll” bandwagon. But let me assure you this is not the case. This article is merely a reflection of how Lance Stroll’s arrival on the grid had repercussions elsewhere. How his arrival potentially led to decrease in the quality of the F1 field.
Ever since Max Verstappen jumped up straight from F3 to F1, he opened up the floodgates. He lowered the average age which was considered to be the norm. The Dutchman was immensely successful and suddenly for boys in the lower category hopping directly into F1 became a reality. Teams too began to ponder. Suddenly talented kids who were deemed to be too young to make it into F1 became viable options. Teams started to doubt whether they should let these kids go around in circles for a couple of years in various tiers of Junior Formula or bring them straight into F1.
But for kids trying to emulate the Verstappen route to F1, the Dutch prodigy is the standard to be measured against. In simple words, they’d have to impress the same way Verstappen did. Anything lower and you’ve shot yourself in the foot.
Back in 2016, riding on the back of utter domination in the lower categories and daddy’s fat wallet, Lance Stroll decided to do a la Verstappen. Over in F1, Williams too wanted to get rid of now old Massa in lieu of young blood. Bottas was at peak of his career, well gelled into the Williams team. He was ready to be a team leader. Williams was too sure about Bottas. He was a product of Williams driver academy and a great talent. More importantly, he wasn’t going anywhere. The rumors of a Ferrari drive had died down and there was no opening in any other top team. On the other hand, Lance Stroll was utterly dominating the categories he had raced in. On top of that, he had a Billionaire father who was ready to spend Millions on his son’s racing.
Williams wanted the money. But they also wanted a young talented driver to make their future secure. So in 2016, the decision was taken to take him into F1 the next year. Massa’s retirement was made a foregone conclusion and he was given a teary farewell. Stroll was announced as the next Williams driver.
Now let’s stop here and ponder two scenarios. What if Stroll had instead decided to go the traditional route. And what the grid would have looked like had he not joined Williams.
Lance is good driver no two thoughts about it. He’s more good than what his first year in F1 suggests. Back in 2014, he won the Italian F4 Championship by a whopping 94 points margin. This despite the fact that he withdrew from the last 3 races. In 2015, he won the Toyota Racing Series by 108 frigging points. And in 2016 he utterly dominated the European F3 Series. Come the end of the season he had 507 points compared to the 2nd placed man scoring 320 points. In F3 he squared against talented drivers like Maximillian Gunther, George Russel, Joel Eriksson, Callum Illot and Ralf Aron. Given his track record, it’s not wrong to see why Williams thought they have found the next Verstappen.
But there’s a difference to when Verstappen made his debut and when Stroll did. The Dutchman made his debut in 2015. At that point in time, F1 cars were criticised for being too easy to drive. A criticism that grew exponentially when Verstappen who jumped straight into F1 from F3 and was immediately competitive. True the cars from 2014 to 2016 era were fairly easy to drive for the drivers. It had the heavier engine, electronics, hybrid energy that acted as engine break. Decreased aero and downforce meant slow speeds in the corner and G-Forces to cope with. The biggest challenge that drivers had to cope with in this era was dealing with the torque. The engines made a lot of torque and increased hybrid energy meant power was instantly available. So the drivers had to focus on rear wheel spin and throttle input. So much was the impact of Verstappen’s success that F1 was forced to put two things into place. First, a minimum age limit and second a regulation overhaul itself to make the cars more physically demanding to drive.
Stroll was bound to struggle in the new formula. His struggles exaggerated by the fact that he had missed the two junior categories closest to F1 i.e. F2 and GP3. If he had after his F3 season moved to GP3, he would have contested in cars that produce 400hp compared to 240hp Euro F3 cars. Not only this but he would have gone head to head with George Russel who really bloomed in his rookie GP3 season. Or he could have gone straight to F2 or done F2 after winning in GP3. Racing in F2 would have prepared him the best for F1. Not only in terms of powerful cars, an F2 car produces north of 600hp, but also in terms of a very strong opponent. He would have squared against a certain Monegasque by the name of Charles Leclerc.
Skipping the two series ultimately hurt Stroll himself not only in the form of inexperience but also in terms of his image. Leclerc who’ll make his debut this year is dubbed as the next big thing after Verstappen. Russel and Lando Norris are part of the next big wave. Stroll should have been the part of this hype, but he hurt his own image jumping into F1 too early.
The question remains but, how his presence messed up the grid. To answer this question let’s assume that in 2017 Stroll went on to do GP3 or F2. Back in 2016, Williams pushed out Massa because Stroll was coming in. Massa was very much happy to continue, so without Stroll’s arrival, the Massa and Bottas pairing would have continued. Of course in the winter spell, Rosberg would retire and Bottas would go to Mercedes and this would have opened up the seat for more deserving Pascal Wehrlein. Lance Stroll would have joined the grid in 2018 or 2019, more experienced and more ready for F1.
And today instead of being dubbed as a pay driver, he would have formed part of the next gen of Formula One drivers dubbed as Champions in making.