Williams Racing are widely expected to sign Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin this month to partner Lance Stroll.
The 22 year-old has become the front runner for the final seat on the 2018 F1 grid and is expected to beat Robert Kubica, Paul diResta and Pascal Werhlein to the drive.
Breathing space for Stroll at Williams?
With the jury still deliberating the legitimacy of the Canadian’s place in F1, Stroll and his backers were rumoured to be uncomfortable at the prospect of Robert Kubica joining Williams. The arrival of rookie Sirotkin might be considered breathing space for Stroll to build on 2017 and stake a claim to be Williams lead driver.
However there is plenty of evidence to suggest Sirotkin could represent a bigger challenge for Stroll this year.
Sirotkin: one of the best prepared F1 rookies
Despite coming into 2018 as an F1 rookie, Sirotkin is anything but and his experience dwarfs that of his soon-to-be-teammate.
F1’s restrictions on testing mileage have left recent graduates – Stroll included – very short on seat time. Sirotkin however will take the grid in Melbourne as one of the best prepared junior drivers for some time.
Multiple free practice testing with Sauber and Renault between 2014 and 2017, plus simulator time during his stints with both teams sets Sirotkin apart. Add to that his Williams testing in Abu Dhabi at the close of the 2017 F1 season and the former ART Grand Prix driver has plenty of F1 mileage under his belt.
Stroll spent the 2017 pre-season testing schedule trying to get to grips with F1’s new brand of wider, higher downforce turbo-hybrid cars. Several accidents further limited seat time as the former European F3 champion got to grips.
Sirotkin’s five free practice sessions and Abu Dhabi test last year should allow him to get straight down to optimising Williams’ 2018 car in pre-season.
Raced there, tested there, got the t-shirt…
Aside from Sirotkin’s experience of – in rookie terms – current era F1 machinery, the Russian will also start the 2018 season having raced or tested on the majority of circuits on the schedule.
His F1 testing includes Sochi, Interlagos, Barcelona and the Red Bull Ring, plus extensive GP2 mileage in Baku, Abu Dhabi, Spa and Monza. By contrast Stroll started the 2017 season with limited knowledge of F1 circuits from his time in Italian F4 and European F3 championships.
Sirotkin has raced the best… and won
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Sirotkin challenging Stroll is the calibre of driver the GP2 race winner has raced – and beaten. A list that includes several of the current crop of F1 debutants and future stars.
During his time in GP2 Sirotkin’s notched up 3 race wins, 9 podiums and 13 top 10 finishes against highly regarded opposition. It is a distinguished list that includes Toro Rosso graduate Pierre Gasly, Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.
Stroll’s limited time in junior single seaters featured seasons in Italian F4 and European F3. Championship wins in 2014 and 2016 came against talented but as yet relatively unproven drivers.
Victory in the 2015 Toyota Series came against a limited field where only Force India tester Alfonso Celis and F2 runner-up Artem Markelov provided the greatest challenge.
Stroll or Sirotkin: who wants it more?
Sirotkin’s time spent climbing the ladder system to F1 will undoubtedly add to the strength of his challenge.
His race craft has been shaped through multiple seasons of open wheel racing. This includes time in the highly rated but sadly now defunct Formula Renault 3.5. Eight seasons of competitive single seater racing dwarfs Stroll’s tally of three.
There can be little doubt that Sirotkin has completed his F1 apprenticeship. The former Sauber and Renault tester has worked hard to reach this position. Set against Stroll’s fast-tracked path to F1, there is little doubt which driver will be hungrier for the 2018 F1 season.
With all teams in the top half of the F1 grid sticking with their driver line-ups, a Sirotkin-Stroll partnership at Williams could be the most engaging intra-team battle this season. Given Sirotkin’s pedigree, it would be a brave person to bet against him coming out on top come Abu Dhabi this November.