Not surprisingly the Monza paddock is buzzing with speculation, following yesterday’s announcement that Felipe Massa is set to retire from F1.
Who will replace him at Williams?
Different sources suggest different theories, with Sergio Perez, Felipe Nasr and Lance Stroll the three names getting the most traction. But there is also some subtle messaging at work behind the scenes, especially where Jenson Button is concerned.
It has long been received wisdom that Williams likes Button and that they think their sponsors would like to have him in the team. Although they are offloading a large salary with Massa leaving, they would be reluctant to take on another. But a world champion demands a premium from sponsors in this sport and Martini and others might be prepared to increase the investment if Button were there, the thinking went, as he is excellent at the glad-handing and social events that sponsors demand from drivers.
Button is a year older than Massa, so you’d be replacing a driver who’d retired with one of his seniors, which seems counter intuitive.
However in the 24 hours since Massa made his statement, Williams has subtly hinted that Button has missed the boat, telling the UK newspapermen that he’s ‘dithered’ and missed his chance. This means that he is now dependent again on Ron Dennis and the McLaren management decision for his F1 future.
Most people feel that Stoffel Vandoorne will be driving the McLaren next year, so another retirement announcement could be on the cards; Button’s interest in the Toyota WEC team is genuine and he made a smash in his appearance on the BBC’s Top Gear TV show, which is badly in need of a star and fresh energy.
Williams would like some additional budget. That leaves Sergio Perez, who is also in demand at Renault, where he would probably race alongside Estaban Ocon. He has hinted that his next move is a dream move, which suggests a works drive. That would leave a gap at Force India which would likely be filled by Pascal Wehrlein.
Another candidate for Williams is their former development driver, Felipe Nasr, who has experience and backing from Banco de Brasil.
And then there is Lance Stroll, the F3 championship leader, who is doing a test programme with Williams this season in preparation for his F1 arrival. Stroll is able to drive a series of tests in a 2014 Williams Mercedes hybrid turbo, because the F1 rules permit tests in two year old cars and this year that is possible with a hybrid turbo car for the first time.
Stroll is well backed and well advised and the preparations are advancing well, overseen by his father Lawrence (above with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff)
His F3 team, Prema, is in GP2 and one route would be for him to race for them in GP2 next season, while driving Fridays for Williams at a dozen or so races as a prelude to a race seat in 2018. That would be the methodical approach.
Williams has Valtteri Bottas, who is considered one of the quicker drivers in F1 and so can afford to take a youngster like Stroll, albeit their constructors’ championship position would be at risk as he’d be unlikely to score the same level of points that a Massa or a Button would have scored.
Today well placed sources have suggested that all three of these routes are possible for Williams. If they do go with Stroll it will be a big test for the 18 year old Canadian, who would be coming in to F1 with a front running team with little experience and a lot of attention and pressure.
Max Verstappen did it and a few others have taken an ‘express’ path to F1, like Kimi Raikkonen.
But you only have one career and the preparation has been careful so far; why rush the last step?
They have the resources to do this however they wish and everything has been so meticulously prepared so far, it would seem risky to throw him straight in for 2017.
The counter argument would be that if he’s F3 champion this year, which looks likely and has a few thousand miles of F1 testing under his belt, which he has, then he’ll have momentum and the racer’s approach would be to ‘go for it’ and race in F1 in 2017. Max Verstappen has blazed a trail for teenagers and Esteban Ocon, another teen, is now racing for Manor.
F1 is increasingly about instant gratification. I think Williams could well be running a Canadian again in 2017.