Lance Stroll will be staying at Williams next year. He has not had a bad first season with team, but neither has he blown away Felipe Massa. There have been 16 races so far and Massa has outqualified Stroll 12-3, the remaining race was when Massa was unwell and handed over the car to Paul di Resta, who started from the back. Massa has scored points 10 times, Stroll six times, but when both cars have finished (only eight times) Massa has been ahead on five occasions and Stroll on three.
In terms of World Championship points the score is 34 – 32, with Stroll having benefited from his somewhat fortunate podium in Baku, when both Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton hit trouble (Vettel’s self-inflicted, Hamilton’s caused by a loose headrest). In addition, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen retired and so it was a rather unusual event. Without that, Stroll’s numbers would be less impressive. Having said that, overall the Williams team has been underperforming significantly, given the fact that it has Mercedes engines. The team has scored only 66 points, while direct rival and fellow Mercedes customer Force India has collected 147. That is a massacre. What is required, therefore, above all else, is a better technical package for 2018 because (these days) there is no driver in the world who can take an uncompetitive car and beat competitive machinery on a regular basis. So, the pressure is on Paddy Lowe and his crew to deliver a better bolide. When it comes to the drivers, it all really depends on how one rates Felipe Massa. The 36-year-old Brazilian has won 11 Grands Prix in his 14 and a half seasons in F1. His last victory was his most famous one, in Brazil 2008 when he seemed to be World Champion for a few seconds before Lewis Hamilton snatched it from him.
In 2009 Felipe suffered significant head injuries when he was hit by a flying part that had come off another car. He returned to Ferrari in 2010 but has never won since. He joined Williams in 2014 and is popular with the team and with the sponsors, but was not going to be retained this year (the score in qualifying was 17-4 in favour of Valtteri Bottas) and he retired (the only other option was to be dumped). Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to quit handed Massa a second chance as Bottas went to Mercedes, leaving Williams with a seat to fill.
It is always difficult to put drivers into a pecking order, particularly as they develop over the time, but on paper Bottas was better than Massa and he is better than Stroll, and thus in F1 terms Stroll is no match for Bottas, who has not been as competitive as Lewis Hamilton. In other words, Stroll is not another Hamilton. And what Williams needs is a driver who will not only score well, but also motivate the workforce and drive the team forward. Keeping Massa is unlikely to do that. Paul di Resta, the team’s reserve driver, who has been out of F1 races since 2013 (except for his own race as stand-in for Massa). Prior to that he had a largely-unsuccessful three-year stint with Force India being in the shadow of Adrian Sutil in 2011 and Nico Hulkenberg in 2012 but then beating Sutil in 2013. He then returned to his career in DTM. In his favour are the facts that he is British and over 25, which is important to the team’s title sponsor Martini.
Robert Kubica, who has been testing for Williams this week, has not raced an F1 car since 2010, at which point he was very much a rising star and had a deal to drive for Ferrari. He lost it all when he hurt himself very badly in an accident while competing on a minor rally in Italy. His right arm was significantly damaged and it is only after a string of operations that he has got to a point where he can drive an F1 car again. He has to convince the team that he still has all the necessary elements to be an F1 star despite, in effect, driving with one arm. It would be a great fairytale if it were to come true, but Robert needs to be convince Williams that he is the man it needs. The downside for Robert is that Renault had the chance to take him in 2018 and did not do so. The final option appears to be Pascal Wehrlein, who has driven well this year with Sauber. He’s young and he’s strong, but there seems to be little interest at Sauber to keep him because it has thrown its lot in with Maranello and is expected to take Ferrari youngsters Charles Lecclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi next year. Wehrlein is a quality driver, which is why he is a Mercedes protégé but his shyness sometimes comes across as arrogance and he lost out to Esteban Ocon for the Force India drive this year. He is probably the best best for Williams, if Mercedes is willing to provide practical support. The question Mercedes has to answer is whether it has too many young drivers. There are Ocon and the young George Russell, and it is no secret that the team’s first choice as a replacement for Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas is Max Verstappen. One can envisage a future line-up of Verstappen/Ocon in the mid-term.
In the end we might end up with a three-driver combination with two actually driving and the third being used as an ambassador (as Mika Hakkinen is used by Johnnie Walker). Martini wants a driver over 25 to help sell its vermouth and Stroll/Wehrlein is too young a combination. If one looks at the use of Martini branding one sees Massa is full kit and Stroll with different shirts and caps, although the cars remain the same. This is because the alcohol industry has a voluntary agreement not to use stars/models under 25 to promote its goods. Thus Massa does the Martini work. Without him, neither driver could do it, but he could stay on (if it suited him) as a Martini salesman.