Following the announcement of Felipe Massa’s intention to retire from Formula One at the end of this season, the consensus of opinion is that Lance Stroll will be his most likely successor. Lance Stroll left the Ferrari Driver Academy and joined Williams at the end of 2015 in a development driver capacity. He is currently leading the European F3 Championship with Prema Powerteam.
Lance will turn 18 at the end of October and through his 2016 F3 campaign has achieved sufficient success to qualify for an FIA Super License and allowing him to participate in Formula One activities on track. Lance is the son of multi billionaire Lawrence Stroll. Lawrence, a keen motorsport enthusiast himself, has supported Lance through his career in junior categories. This support should not in anyway suggest Lance should be labelled as a ‘pay driver’ his domination in the European F3 championship clearly demonstrates he is a talented driver.
Williams have a reputation for signing up and coming drivers, signing Lance Stroll would be in keeping with this reputation. At this point all signs point to his announcement as a driver in 2017 seem entirely reasonable. In fact, both Lance and team representatives have suggested the levelling effect of regulation changes in 2017 would make it a logical time to make the change.
There is however another rumour about Lance Stroll which doesn’t make quite so much sense. In recent months highly reputable journalists in the Formula One paddock have suggested that Lance Stroll and the Williams team are completing extensive familiarisation tests for the Canadian using 2014 machinery at multiple circuits on the F1 calendar. These journalists suggest the programme is being bankrolled by Lawrence Stroll to the tune of up to $20M. At this time neither team or driver have officially commented on the rumours.
Rather than make a claim one way or the other, it seems of merit to delve into the challenges of how such a test programme could be achieved within current FIA regulations and Williams partnerships:
- Power Units. Whilst it is within regulations for a team to complete tests with power units from seasons two years prior to the current season which would allow Williams to complete tests using current hybrid power unit technology, Williams do not own any Power Units. The partnership agreement with Mercedes is a supply agreement only which means Mercedes deliver Power Units to the team on a race weekend. The team do not retain anything. In order for tests to be taking place an additional agreement would be required with Mercedes. Mercedes would then have to agree to supply or manufacturer 2014 specification Power Units. This is not impossible but does add a level of complexity.
- Tyres. FIA approved tests with 2014 machinery require tyre supply from Pirelli. Pirelli are only permitted to supply demonstration tyres for such tests. These tyres do not perform in the same way as a race tyre. This would devalue the purpose of familiarisation tests. Of course it is possible the team have found a dispensation within these rules, but again, Pirelli would be required to dedicate resource to this programme at the same time as developing 2017 tyres. It should be noted Williams declined to participate in the 2017 tyre development programme. Again this does not make the Lance Stroll test programme infeasible rather illustrates a supply challenge.
- Circuits. Contrary to the belief of some in the F1 paddock, Racing circuits do not lie dormant for the 362 days a year that F1 is not using a venue. Booking circuit time is not a simple task. Shutting a circuit down for private testing would not go unnoticed.
- Existing Commitments. Lance Stroll is currently leading the European F3 championship. The championship requires more commitment than an arrive and drive mentality. He will be fully focused on the task in hand.
- Existing Infrastructure. Williams, as with many leading teams on the F1 grid, have invested heavily into race simulators, completing tests way from the simulator in old machinery may suggest a lack of confidence in their own technology.
- Regulations. 2017 will see a radical overhaul in Formula One technical regulations. Ambitious projections suggest a lap time improvement of up to 5 seconds per lap. If this is accurate, the value of testing machinery by that time 3 years old and possibly up to 7 seconds per lap slower becomes highly questionable.
Without official confirmation from driver or team it is not possible draw a conclusion over these rumoured tests, but given the challenges surrounding their feasibility on the face of it they appear unlikely. A far more logical and cost effective approach would be to wait until Lance turns 18 and place him in Felipe Massa’s car in the Free Practice One sessions in the remaining races of the 2016 calendar.
Another challenge the Williams F1 team may face in signing Lance Stroll for 2017 could be with their principle partner Bacardi (with the Martini brand) Williams drivers pay a key role in the activation of the Martini Sponsorship, a driver not of legal in the US could prove to be a challenge for the business and this approach.