This season has seen two of the three rookies in the F1 field struggling compared to their team mates with Lance Stroll and Stoffel Vandoorne matching up badly against Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso respectively.
Of the rookies only Esteban Ocon is standing out, keeping pace with Sergio Perez at Force India, as he showed graphically in Canada. Ocon did have eight races last season as a warm up, however and Vandoorne one.
The conclusion is that these 2017 F1 cars are far more difficult to drive, the Pirelli tyres are ‘peaky’ meaning that experience is critical in finding how to bring them in and maintain them in the optimum window and generally it is tough for a rookie to get the maximum from the car.
The Canadian Grand Prix offered a shot at redemption for Lance Stroll, the 18 year old from Montreal who was seeking his first points of the season, despite driving the fourth best car in the field, the Williams-Mercedes.
Stroll duly scored his first points of the season in his home town race, in ninth place, after a disappointing qualifying session. He made some fine overtaking moves and this result will help to calm things down – internally and externally – ahead of a trio of upcoming races where the Williams should expect to be very fast and where Stroll knows two of the tracks intimately.
We thought it would be interesting to look at his Montreal weekend in detail and see how things unfolded, looking for some conclusions about Stroll and where he fits in to F1.
Pre-Grand Prix weekend
The week building up to the race in Montreal was busy, Stroll did seven events including a private visit to a children’s hospital to help with fundraising, two sponsor events with Rexona, a Williams partner and a karting filming day with SKY TV’s Johnny Herbert.
The final outing was an event in Montreal’s downtown that was disrupted by a naked woman with a flare canister, protesting about F1 encouraging prostitution when it comes to town.
After that the F1 paddock must have seemed a relatively calm place on Thursday..
Thursday – Media Day
Stroll appears in the FIA Drivers Press conference and acquits himself pretty well. He sits in the centre seat of the three, conveying some importance to the speaker and he talks about how he used to come to the race as a small boy a decade ago when Alonso, Schumacher and then Hamilton were leading the way. He would watch from the grandstands and reflect on one day having a chance to race these cars.
He said expectations were high that he could score his first points in F1. This has been a strong track for Williams recently – back to back podiums the last two seasons and there has been a Williams on the front two rows of the grid in three of the last four years.
Drawn onto the inevitable question about the criticism he has faced for being a billionaire’s son, who’s not performing, he talks about how there will always be ‘haters’ but that he can only influence the things under his control and he will try his best again this weekend.
He comes across as a nice lad, clearly very young compared to the hardened pros around him, but an open and approachable person, willing to talk and certainly not worn down by the criticism.
It was clear from the start that the Williams was a competitive car this weekend, with a small margin on performance compared to Force India. A top ten starting grid slot was definitely there for the taking for Stroll.
Although he is a local boy, Stroll has never raced at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit before and so Friday practice was all about getting familiar with the layout and dialling the car into the tyres.
Stroll covered 36 laps in FP1, with a best of 1m 16.3 coming half way through a long run of 15 laps. In FP2 he did not follow the same pattern as the others, with a qualifying simulation half way through; instead he focussed on more long runs and familiarisation. He has had a few accidents this season already, pushing the car too much and so the brief from the team was clearly to keep it clean on Friday and not suffer any kind of incident that would set back confidence on the first day.
This was particularly important as the track was especially dirty and therefore slippery on Friday this year, with many cars spinning.
The strategy was to give him two new sets of tyres for the FP3 session on Saturday morning (rather than the normal one) to give him two chances to get his eye in just before Qualifying. This has been done before and was considered the best way to prepare him for an important qualifying session.
Montreal is unique in that it combines the risk of the walls and barriers of Monaco, but at much higher speeds. So bravery and risk taking are high on the list of requirements, as is real precision in the way that you take the kerbs in the chicanes like Turn 4/5.
It was notable how the crowd in the large grandstand amphitheatre of Turns 2 and 3 responded to him as he drove out of the pits; a warm applause similar to that for Hamilton and Vettel, the two main crowd favourites.
The headline in the local Journal de Montreal (above) says it all. Stroll qualified 17th, eight tenths off his team mate Massa in Q1 and blamed the team for a strategic error in leaving him out on the tyres, rather than pitting him for a new set.
Stroll was sent out on a set of ultrasoft tyres and circulated for 14 laps without pitting, doing a push lap followed by a recharge lap. Other peers, like Ocon, did just six laps, while Vandoorne pitted for new tyres.
Massa did a similar plan to Stroll, but only for 10 laps. He subsequently went on to Q3 and set the seventh fastest time, best of the rest behind the top three teams, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. There was a half second gap back to Hulkenberg in P10 and Stroll should really have been in that gap with the car he has.
“The team decided that I should stay out on the same tyres. They were finished and didn’t allow me to improve. It’s so tight in the midfield, it’s easy to slip down a few rows,” he said.
“Ideally we should have changed them..when the times of others were constantly improving. The situation wasn’t helped by Pascal Wehrlein going off and triggering yellow flags at the end of the session, which meant that none of the drivers under pressure could respond with a final effort.”
Massa followed a similar plan and managed to get the lap time, but he’s got 15 years experience. Was it a mistake on Williams’ part, should they have thrown a new set of tyres at the situation? It was taking drivers several laps to get the tyres to come in
Starting 17th on the grid, Stroll spoke before the race of needing an alternate strategy, something to allow him to use the pace of the Williams. He took advantage of the chaos on the opening lap to move up to 13th place. He was up to 10th by Lap 14, battling with Hulkenberg, who had pitted for new tyres under the Virtual Safety Car.
He pitted on Lap 26 and rejoined in some traffic behind Palmer in 17th place. He passed him 12 laps later, then Grosjean on Lap 41 Vandoorne on Lap 44 and Alonso two laps later. This put him tenth, knowing that Kvyat ahead had to pit and also serve a time penalty, so the ninth place was in the bag.
On the slow down lap he said, “At last… some points. It’s taken a while. Thanks, guys!”
Things were certainly getting tense at Williams, with Stroll’s imposing father Lawrence clearly unhappy after another difficult qualifying session, but Sunday poured some balm on the situation.
Clearly this is one of the most difficult seasons for a rookie to come into F1, much harder than when Max Verstappen came in as a 17 year old, due to the complexity of the cars and the peakiness of the tyres.
Stroll is not Verstappen, a once in a generation talent, but he is a champion of F4 and F3, like Ocon and Leclerc, who is now developing his skills in F2 with the Prema Power team that Stroll raced for in F3 and that his father co-owns.
You only have one career and Stroll’s best interests would arguably have been served by doing this 2017 season in F2 with Prema, winning some races and doing the available F1 test days with a 2017 car as a preparation for F1. Even Lewis Hamilton did a season in GP2 prior to entering F1.
The FIA has worked to build the single seater pathway of F4, F3, F2 and F1 which is now in place and next season F3 will replace GP3 on the F1 support programme.
Perhaps this Stroll experience should act as a catalyst for the Federation to insist that young drivers must follow every step of that ladder, collecting credits on their licence, before entering F1. It would put more emphasis on development, which is important in all elite sports.
What Stroll has attempted to do is go straight from a soccer academy into the Champions League final.
He can’t undo that decision now. The next few races will feature tracks where he has raced before, like Austria, Silverstone and Hungary and Williams should be competitive at the first two of those.
He has Luca Baldisseri (above), Michael Schumacher’s former Ferrari race engineer, as his engineering mentor, who is employed by the family but who sits in on Williams engineering meetings, which is quite unusual.
He has the means to take a long view and Williams will have to accept that they are likely to finish sixth or seventh at best in the championship with only one car scoring regular points.
That’s hard to take for the technical team that has build the fourth fastest car, but sees Force India now on 71 points to their 22, Ocon on 27 points with six top ten finishes in seven starts to Stroll’s two points.
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