Sergey Sirotkin, Lance Stroll, Williams, 2018

A performance decision: Analysing Williams’s driver line-up gamble

2018 F1 season

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The uncharitable would have called Williams’s ‘2018 F1 season launch’ yesterday evening it a car launch without the car.

On the other hand, take a glance at the F1 launch calendar for 2018 and note that just one of the remaining teams – world champions Mercedes – have planed an actual pre-season event. A saying about ‘gift horses’ therefore springs to mind.

Williams FW41, 2018
First pictures: Williams FW41
The FW41 was present in the form of a rendered image projected onto a wall, but with no physical car to talk about the drivers were the main focus of the media’s questions. Last year the team added one rookie to its line-up in the shape of Lance Stroll and 12 months on he has been joined by another newcomer, Sergey Sirotkin.

This is a significant change for the team. Just two years ago Williams began the season with two drivers who between them had started over 300 races. This year the corresponding figure is just 20 (the second lowest-on the grid after Red Bull’s kindergarten Toro Rosso, where Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley have nine starts to their names).

Last year Williams faced accusations it had hurried Stroll into F1 because of the wealth which followed him, charges the team addressed head-on. Yesterday’s launch event saw a continuation of the theme as Claire Williams and Paddy Lowe heaped praise on Stroll’s rookie season and strong rebuffed suggestions they had hired another ‘pay driver’.

“You may have seen over the winter, it’s not talked about so much, but Lance gained the most positions in lap one in aggregate in 2017 season amongst all the drivers in the grid,” Lowe pointed out.

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“Now that is not a common statistic to quote,” he continued, “but actually of the top three, four attributes of a great race driver that would be one of them.”

“Because what you want to do is take those positions in the first lap, be aggressive, but not throw it away by hitting someone. Lance is very strong in that area and I think he can only build through this second season, come back stronger and gain even more points from the car.”

You can’t fault the accuracy of this statistic: On average Stroll gained two places on the first lap of every race last year which was the most of any driver. But it’s also relevant to reflect why it came about.

On average Stroll qualified seven-tenths of a second slower than team mate Felipe Massa. He therefore had many more places to make up at the start.

Stroll’s under-performance in qualifying would have been less alarming had there been clear signs of progress over the course of the season. But in the final five races Stroll was a second slower on four occasions.

It’s hard to argue there aren’t more promising junior talents on the market which do not have the backing of Stroll and Sirotkin. But equally those who claim Williams are putting income before performance are missing the point.

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As the breakdown of team budgets published by RaceFans on Wednesday showed, the income gap between the biggest and smallest teams is huge. Williams, despite being one of F1’s heritage teams, is very much one of the smaller outfits.

Once a team of Williams’s size has paid for the basic costs of building the car and travelling to all the races, any additional income it can secure makes a huge difference to its potential for development. Which, if successful, translates directly into a lap time gain.

Sergey Sirotkin, Williams, 2018
Why Williams picked Sirotkin
It’s a dilemma which will be familiar to players of Motorsport Manager. Should you plough your resources into developing your car or use it to subsidise the best possible driver line-up? Will you be more competitive with a solid car and great drivers or a great car and capable drivers?

“We don’t take these decisions lightly,” Claire Williams stressed. “If we had any doubt over our driver line-up then we certainly wouldn’t be putting a race driver in a car. As a team everyone knows that winning for Williams it’s all about the constructors’ championship.”

When Williams became a Mercedes engine customer in 2014 with Massa and Valtteri Bottas driving it finished third in the championship. But its points hauls over the past four seasons vividly illustrates a decline which could not be ignored: 320, 257, 138, 83.

Williams is gambling that the performance it may lose through its driver line-up (never ignoring the potential for improvement) can be more than made up by the progress it makes on its chassis. Let’s see if it pays off.

2018 F1 season

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 49 comments on “A performance decision: Analysing Williams’s driver line-up gamble”

    1. “Williams is gambling that the performance it may lose through its driver line-up can be more than made up by the progress it makes on its chassis. Let’s see if it pays off.”

      That’s the essence of their game, and been for quite a while. I am still waiting for their tactic to pay off. So far they haven’t found the sweet spot and we are coming to the end of the current development cycle (2021) ..

      1. And it is all good and well since it is a difficult game. But what I do not like is their dishonesty about it, insulting the F1 audience intelligence and it in general makes me dislike them for it.. which can’t be good for their sponsors

        1. Do you really expect them to say they have mediocre drivers, but hope to outperform the midfield because of a better car?
          You can call it lying, you can also call it common sense human resource management.

      2. @mayrton In a way, Williams has already been doing something similar since post-Senna. While Hill and Coulthard weren’t pay drivers, they were comparatively weak and cheap for a team that was then a title-candidate, and it did arguably cost them in 94 and 95 when the car itself would have deserved full title glory. And when a title made Hill more expensive, he got replaced. The championship after that pairing was won by someone who got his contract as a rookie (Villeneuve) and who likely didn’t earn half as much as his rival, and the following decades it has always been cheap-ish drivers (Montoya came in as a rookie, too). Maybe this trade-off, the constant under-estimation of the role of the driver is just one of the reasons for Wiliams’ decline, along with the habit of being bad at strategy which reaches even a decade further back into the mid-80s.

        Now of course I’m well aware current day Williams can’t just go and hire the best there are for ridiculous amounts of money; I could well understand one of the line-up (preferably Sirotkin) paired with an established upper-midfielder. And even if it has to be two pay-drivers, there must be a better deal available than Stroll. Money you throw at technology can do much, but it will at some point have diminishing returns, and a full second + a high crash rate, that is too much to make up. For much of the season, the lap-time difference between Force India and Red Bull was smaller than that, and Stroll’s payments certainly do not bridge the budget-gap between those teams.

        1. An interesting point about Williams’ driver selection process since 1994.

        2. Well argued @crammond, I mut admit I have felt much the same about Williams, ever since I got back to really following F1 in 2007 (after waning time, interest during studies/MSC@ferrari dominance meant I missed kimi,montoya in their prime ;) and tried to understand where the teams I knew stood, and why, but wasn’t able to vocalise it as eloquently.

        3. True, have to agree, some people say williams is in decline cause of their driver choices, but actually the choices you point out were already happening when they had the strongest car.

          So the difference was made by the engine and having adrian newey for example, so they lost 94 and 95 through average-good drivers vs a top driver at benetton despite them having the best car, they had enough advantage in 96 and 97 to win anyway and then nothing, they’ve been competitive for several races with bmw and a title contender in 2003 but again their drivers weren’t at the same level as the car, montoya and ralf, average drivers, and even if montoya might look better to some, if you look at his comparison with his team mates, he wasn’t really much better than ralf.

    2. I have to say Stroll did surprise me last season – with just how big the gap still was to Massa in qualifying at the back end of the year.

      Claire Williams might say she has no doubt in her drivers but she should have major doubts over Stroll’s alarming lack of pace / progress. How can she not after seeing Massa trounce him in qualifying all year long.

      I can see them relying heavily on Sirotkin from the get-go to deliver some sort of consistency because Stroll certainly isn’t that.

      1. @deej92 as Stroll will quickly point out, points aren’t won in qualifying. They are won in the race and that’s where Stroll’s mastery is most evident (rolling on the floor).

        1. @freelittlebirds
          ‘Mastery’ is a strong word, especially when that ‘mastery’ means finishing behind the team mate 4 times out of 13, and that’s just the naked stats, which require you to squint your eyes in order not to question if they are actually representative, by and large.
          I don’t know how strong your sarcasm is, but I’m hoping for a value somewhere north of 5/10.

        2. That’s the biggest thing that annoys me about Stroll, he can’t keep his trap shut. He just needs to let his on-track results do his talking. The best thing he can do in 2018 is #1 beat his teammate and #2 score points.

    3. “If we had any doubt over our driver line-up then we certainly wouldn’t be putting a race driver in the car.”

      I’m really struggling to extract the intended meaning of this statement, is the quote definitely correct?

    4. While I understand the impact of a pay driver on car performance, I don’t think the second pay driver bring as much performance per $.
      It would make much more sense to have one pay and one performance diver to take as much as possible from the car /driver combination.

      Anyway Williams had no really good option and it felt like a choice of the better of several evils. Hopefully they will manage to hire a better prospect next year.

      1. Maybe that is the real issue. Williams snubbed a few highly talented rookies, but which experienced F1 driver was realistically available to them? I cannot think of one. Kubica apparently wasn’t good enough, just like DiResta.

        1. And how do we know Kubica wasnt good enough? I wouldnt exactly listen to Claire and Paddys words regarding driver quality.

          1. @rethla, I believe that Motorsport Magazine (one of the remaining independent motorsport journals) reviewed the performance of Kubica in that post season test and they were also of the opinion that Kubica’s performance in Abu Dhabi was, at best, mixed.

            1. Kubica was testing tyres not racing and still his performance was same as the rest of the midfield and faster than Stroll, while Sirotkin was driving full on and still didn’t shine.

          2. Also, why not having Massa for another year? He was having decent races, almost no mistakes, reliable, with good car understanding (praised by Pat Simonds and also Paddy Lowe) and overall very consistent. They would be better served than with 2 rookies. And Massa could help develop the car in the right direction much quickly than Stroll. Let’s hope Sirotkin shows he’s a hidden gem.

            1. Mmertens
              Money. Plain and simple. The only reason Williams did not have 2 rokie drivers last year was because Bottas leaving for Mercedes, and the money they got for him was used to pay Massa wages. Had they decided to keep Massa this year they would have had to pay his wages again this year.

          3. There were several reporters who more or less confirmed Kubicas performance was not as steady as everybody would have liked. Apart from that: why would Williams have tested the guy if they were going for the money anyway?

            1. @mosquito Because Kubica was also bringing a lot of money. Kubica was pretty much presented as a pay driver too after Renault had decided he wasn’t good enough. It’s just that Kubica reportedly brought less money with him. Plus Sirotkin was faster and much less of a gamble.

    5. I actually have no issue with the fact that Williams have chosen these two drivers, as it’s clearly been done for a reason and the team’s management know far more about what it takes to run a racing team than I. What bothers me is the constant and increasingly pathetic defence of the decision; trying to convince us that the two (particularly Stroll) are world class drivers. I’m sorry, but if these drivers did not bring backing, they would not be in the car; there is no question of that. Stroll is not Alonso, Sirotkin is not Hamilton. In fact, Stroll has shown he is not even close to Massa, let alone the truly world class of the sport.

      Alonso may bring backing in a way, Perez may bring backing in a way, but they have earned that by being talented enough to be worthy of backing in the first place. Stroll is backed by his own father, which is a totally different situation.

      This team has run drivers like Piquet, Mansell, Prost, Senna, Hill and Villeneuve; now it’s run by a rich 19-year-old driver and his family. Sad.

      1. @ben-n, on the contrary, I can recall how quite a few posters on this site attacked Perez fairly viciously when it was announced that he’d be joining Sauber, where he was denounced as a “useless pay driver”.

        After all, when you look at his record in junior series, Perez didn’t have a particularly outstanding record prior to entering F1. He was 6th in Formula BMW in 2006, 4th in the 2008 British Formula 3 series, 7th in the Asian GP2 series in 2008-09, 12th in the main GP2 series in 2009 – he only won one title, which was the National Class in Formula 3 back in 2007, and had one 2nd place finish in GP2 in 2010, where he was beaten to the title by Pastor Maldonado. Quite a lot of people dismissed him as only being at Sauber because he had the backing of Carlos Slim’s backing, and how people complained about him being fairly thoroughly beaten by Kobayashi in 2011 (30 points to 14 in Kobayashi’s favour).

        As it is, on the back of his performance in F1 over subsequent years, he is now given far greater respect than he initially was when joining the sport – which I think has lead to some perhaps retrospectively sweeping some of the attacks that were made on him under the carpet.

      2. @ben-n

        Glad to see someone saying something like this. I don’t like the amount of people saying Williams have made the wrong decision and they see no advantages to who they have chosen. None of us outside the team will know the precise reasons as to why these 2 drivers were chosen. I personally think they really should have kept Massa. But then as I state, I respect they will have their reasons as to why they went with someone else.

        One thing I do expect though is that Massa has helped Williams over the past year with his knowledge and feedback. Hopefully he will have been able to help describe the weaknesses of the car and make the team aware of what needs improving now. So I think Massa will have actually played a part in the car being good this year if this turns out to be true. But unless Stroll makes a significant improvement, I’m not sure these 2 drivers will show the cars potential.

    6. “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

    7. I just want to say that I hate Stroll’s voice, and that picture only reminds me of it.

      That acute, nasal echo… ugh!

    8. I think we have to wait until the end of the year. Maybe these two drivers will surprise us. While there are no doubts that they are “pay drivers” Stroll in his first year was the youngest driver to be on the front row and to get on the podium. Not bad. He is very young and perhaps needs a couple more years of experience so that we really know how good he is.
      Sirotkin, like any other rookie, will have to pass the test of his first year and show that he has conditions.

      1. If you call Strolls first year as “passed the test” i have no doubt Sergey will do just fine in that test.

      2. @jorge-lardone I will have to don my shiniest anorak and thickest-rimmed glasses to point out Stroll was the youngest rookie to reach the podium, not the youngest driver, which remains Verstappen.

        1. @keithcollantine the funny thing is, in all the effort to make this youngest rookie record seem so so significant, Lance Stroll couldn’t even name the person he replaced!

          The answer is Kevin Magnussen.

      3. @jorge-lardone It is true Stroll started from the front row, but that was only because of (at least) two drivers who qualified before him got grid penalties.

    9. So many armchair experts, Maybe you should apply for roles at Williams because you seem to know more/have more information than they do.

      They have all the data, They know where Lance was good/bad last year & they know the reasons for that (i have seen the tyre operating range mentioned many times related to his qualifying issues) & how able he will be able to resolve them. They also have the data from Sirtokin’s test and any sim runs he has done so again are far more able to talk about performance than anyone here is.

      It reminds me of 2013 when Red Bull signed Ricciardo to replace Mark Webber & 90% of the comments from fans were firmly of the belief that they had only gone for Ricciardo to appease Vettel because Ricciardo wouldn’t be a threat to him & as we know all of the fan experts that were saying that were proved completely wrong & Dan has turned out to be one of the top drivers on the grid proving that the data the team had was far more valuable than the opinions of fans who have none of it.

      1. @PeterG Thank you for that.

      2. Yes, that’s a plus 2 PeterG

      3. LOL
        Yeah, stroll was good at bringing checks, and bad at driving…

        I’m not gonna pretend I know as much about driving styles as even some around here, but the FIRST time I saw an onboard video of stroll driving it was painfully obvious the kid is not world class. Sure, he’s good enough for formula1… his seat proves that unfortunately… but only because Williams lowered their standards for the money he brought..

        You can say he is underrated and over hated… but you can’t say he’s a great driver… well you could… but that doesn’t make it so.

      4. That Ricciardo story was nonsense though. He performed extremely well in the tests.

        I don’t remember people saying Ricciardo was a poor choice though. It most certainly wasn’t as bad as when Alonso kept on jammering how rookie Hamilton wouldn’t be good enough to be his team mate at McLaren and that they should hire Pedro De La Rosa instead. Although both rookies beat the multi WDC incumbents and drove them both out of the team in doing so.

        1. Wow, alonso was so coward that he knew hamilton would’ve given him issues and wanted de la rosa?

    10. Will you be more competitive with a solid car and great drivers or a great car and capable drivers?

      Its intetesting that in one breath people will say “anyone could win in that Mercedes”, then in the next say “Williams needs stronger drivers”.

      1. +1 Insightful

      2. Thats maybe the grimmest testament to the Williams drivers quality. You can no longer say “anyone could win in that Mercedes”.

      3. Yes. Stroll could win one or two races in Mercedes.
        Yes. Williams still needs strong driver to accompanied Stroll because he ‘only’ spends £80m to join Williams not years of £300m annual basis like Mercedes.

        This is why Claire Williams was wrong. If she willing to sell her soul to this young boy, she should ask for a bigger price because even when Stroll cover 2/3 of Williams regular budget it’s not enough. She should ask for money which didn’t appear in Williams book before like paying one great driver salary, brand new office & tunnel, F1 talents hijack cost and R&D fund for their own engine.

      4. @eurobrun The “anyone could win in that Mercedes”-quote was (nearly) true in 2014/2015, when the car had 1.5 to 2 seconds pace advantage. You can refer to this f1-metrics article about that, where it appears the only driver on the 2014 grid weak enough he would have finished the championship behind a driver in another car was Esteban Gutierrez. The difference between fastest and 2nd fastest car on the grid was about as big as the one between best and worst driver.

        Now, not only have car performances become more close, but the situation within the midfield is entirely different from a situation where you are miles ahead of everyone. While modern days have around half a dozen drivers at the top-end that are very evenly matched, variance at the bottom end of F1 drivers seems higher, whereas in car performance a second, or even just a half, is hard to come by. This is especially true for midfield teams, and it can mean multiple positions in the constructors for them. If your driver is a second slower than a Force India driver (a team with a roughly similar budget to Williams, which they should be competing against), you car budget needs to be enough to built a car that is a second faster. Last year Red Bull built such a car. Do Stroll + Sirotkin provide a budget that bridges the gap towards there?

    11. I think it’s a smart and refreshing change! Way better than running Massa who’d been proven as being outclassed by the top drivers and having not much chance of bringing anything results-wise. They need to take chances, sure they probably wont pay off and it’ll probably be a tough year, but maybe, just maybe the stars will align with the car and one of the drivers will shine. Or at least they will get a good trial by fire and could prove themselves for years to come, or make way for even more talent.

      There needs to be doors, and I’m glad to see this one be opened. Sure it might turn out to be revolving, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either! There are only so many seats and hundreds, if not thousands of potential F1 drivers out there.

    12. People keep talking about the great drivers that Williams have had in the past, but forget that at the time, the Williams cars were good enough to win races and championships.

      Over the past few seasons, their car, and even their pit wall strategy management has been poor to be generous.

      Does anyone think realistically that they can turn that around in 1 year?

      At the moment, no top driver would want to be near that car, and probably no really talented rookie either – to drive one of their cars could potentially be a career killer. It’s OK if you’re a rookie in (say) a Sauber or in a Maurissia because no one expects you to do well. For some reason, people still expect a driver to do well in a Williams even when the car is clearly not good.

      If it were me, I’d do exactly what they’ve done, hire a couple of OK(ish) drivers, take the money and work like hell to improve the car so that next year some of the better drivers & rookies start lining up to get the drive.

      I wish them luck, it’s been too far behind for way to long.

      1. DB-C90
        The problem is though, they have not had a good car now for years. I say the only thing stopping their complete fall from the mid field is the Mercedes power unit. The take money gambit, and invest it a better car design, to move up the grid, only works if you have a strategy to do so. Having Paddy this year maybe the 1st smart appointment they have made. But 1 manager does not a season make. I could be proved wrong, but this season is crucial for their long term future, or else their slow decent to the back of the grid will continue.

      2. To be honest, if you remember, alonso at some point, think spa, had thought to go to williams next year! Would’ve been good for williams, provided they’d have had the money to pay him, but the only thing they had was the mercedes engine, for the rest like I already said back then, he was better off at mclaren, so in the end he didn’t go!

    13. I think Williams are getting way too much leeway here. Sympathetic heritage British team. People too quick to look the other way.

    14. I hope they end the year fighting for 9th place in the constructors championship. That will teach them. The simple truth is: money preceeds performance for Williams, and they should know better. Look what Force India has done last year. Kubica would trash both the Williams drivers even if he had LOST an arm, and they chose to tear up his contract (he had already signed one) to welcome Sirotkin’s money with open arms. It’s sad, but they have become a team that rents midfield cars to pay drivers. Nothing more.

    15. Will be interesting to see if Williams have developed a good solid car. Im just worried with these 2 drivers that we will never see its true potential. Having 2 paid drivers i feel is going to be there undoing. If money wasn’t the issue we know they wouldn’t be driving these cars. No offence to the drivers though but a historic team like Williams need better than that. Good luck to Williams.

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