Monday, November 7, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Taking A Stroll

It rained in Texas and it delayed Cup race to Sunday night and Carl Edwards won the race, clinching a spot in the finale after rain ended it after 293 laps. No driver has clinched a spot in the finale for NASCAR's second division. One man is on a roll in a truck. Audis got together at Shanghai. An American took a world championship or sort of took a world championship if you want to get technical. A New Zealander won on home soil and is on the verge of a championship. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Taking A Stroll
Canada has a new Formula One driver and his debut will come twenty years after Jacques Villeneuve became the first Canadian to win the World Drivers' Championship. Lance Stroll follows in his fellow French-Canadian's footsteps, as he will join Valtteri Bottas at Williams. The 18-year old Canadian is fresh off winning the 2016 European Formula Three championship after winning 14 of 30 races. While Stroll's on-track success is worth noting, it isn't what has people talking about his rise to Formula One.

Stroll is the son of multibillionaire Lawrence Stroll, who made his money in the fashion industry with Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors. The elder Stroll has gone on to buy Circuit Mont-Tremblant and fund his son's career. The younger Stroll knows his family's wealth has helped him reach his dream of Formula One but he believes his success has gotten him his seat and not his bank account. Although, his father has reportedly spent $80 million to get his son to Formula One including purchasing Williams a high-tech simulator that current drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas couldn't use as it was calibrated for Formula Three. We may need to have another conversation at another time about how Lawrence Stroll is no different than any other sports parent and is trying to live out a dream through his child, an $80 million dream at that.

You cannot deny Stroll's success. He did win the European Formula Three title and won it handily over the field with 502 points to runner-up Maximilian Günther's 320 points. In 2015, he won the Toyota Racing Series championship in New Zealand and finished fifth in his first season of European Formula Three. In 2014, he was Italian Formula Four champion. He clearly has some level of talent beyond novice and when you consider in recent years drivers such as Sakon Yamamoto got to Formula One with minimal success in Japan and mediocre results in Europe's junior series, Stroll must be at least a half dozen steps ahead of him and can probably be able to get to a competitive speed.

Despite Stroll's success and wealth, if there is one thing that should be questioned before he moves up to Formula One next year is whether or not he is mature enough mentally and as a driver. Max Verstappen moved to Formula One as a 17-year-old after only one season in European Formula Three. While Verstappen impressed many as a rookie with Toro Rosso and earned a midseason call up to Red Bull in his sophomore season, where he won on his debut with the team at Barcelona, the Dutch driver has been under some fire for aggressive driving this season and has led some to question whether he moved too quickly to Formula One. He had only 47 starts in his car racing career before he joined Toro Rosso.

Verstappen's track record in European Formula Three was quite clean with no major incidents. That isn't the case for Stroll. He enters Formula One with a few blemishes on his record. During the 2015 season, Stroll had three instances of reckless driving and it led to him to be disqualified from one race and banned from another. At the time, I wrote Stroll's punishment should have been even greater than a one-race ban to send the message that these driving standards are not acceptable at this level and they won't be acceptable at the next level. Since missing that race at Spa-Francorchamps, Stroll has been a much smarter and safer driver and outside of an accident on his out lap in the first practice session for the 24 Hours of Daytona where he drove a Daytona Prototype for Chip Ganassi Racing, he hasn't put a wheel wrong. But how will he drive when he is against much more experienced and more developed drivers in a much more technical car?

The question shouldn't be about Stroll's success or about Stroll's money. It should be about if his experience is diverse enough to handle a Formula One car. Stroll has raced 109 times since he started driving race cars in 2014 but all those starts have come in European Formula Three, the Toyota Racing Series, the Italian F4 championship and the Florida Winter Series, the same series where Max Verstappen got his first taste of driving a proper racing car. I would argue Stroll does not have diverse experience when it comes to handling higher-level race cars with more power and downforce. I think Stroll and any other driver in his situation would benefit from running GP2, GP3 or even sports cars to diversify their skill set.

One of the drivers Stroll ran off the road in 2015 was Antionio Giovinazzi, who was in his third-year of European Formula Three. While Giovinazzi played a role in that incident he has developed into one of the top prospect in European junior formulas and he has done so by running many different disciplines. He finished second in the European Formula Three championship that year and won the Masters of Formula Three race at Zandvoort and made his DTM debut. In 2016, Giovinazzi won two races in the Asian Le Mans Series with Sean Gelael, he leads the GP2 championship as the series heads to its finale later this month and he has been respectable driving for Extreme Speed Motorsports in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

What makes Giovinazzi's success any less impressive or less deserving than Stroll? This is where the money separates Stroll from Giovinazzi and a handful of other successful drivers hoping to break into Formula One. Stroll has earned the right not to be completely dismissed because of his wealth but his success and talent aren't the only reasons why Williams has signed him. Let's throw money and age out of the discussion and just take pure on track results. What makes World Endurance Drivers' Champion, three-time Le Mans winner and soon-to-be-former-Audi factory driver André Lotterer any less qualified than Stroll for that Williams seat? When you consider two DTM drivers (Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon) have been promoted to Formula One in the last year, a factory LMP1 driver wouldn't be a crazy hire. In another era, Lotterer would have had to be one of the top contenders for that seat but we live in an age where teams would rather take a risk on unknown youth than veterans that know all the tricks in the book.

We don't know who Lance Stroll is as a race car driver and that should a bigger concern than how much money he brings. We have one season where he made mistakes and was dangerous and another where he was calm and quick. That isn't a clear picture of who he is and isn't any clearer than the picture Max Verstappen portrayed to us when he was heading to Toro Rosso and now look at all the question that are raised about Verstappen. We will wait and see whether Stroll reverts to his 2015 form and becomes another young hazard or if he continues to make strides off his 2016 success and be praised as a gem of a signing for Williams.

Champions From the Weekend
The #36 Signatech Alpine-Nissan of Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi clinched the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers after a fourth-place finish at Shanghai.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Edwards but did you know...

The #1 Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard won the 6 Hours of Shanghai. The #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca-Nissan of Romain Rusinov, Will Stevens and Alex Brundle won its second consecutive race in LMP2. The #67 Ford GT of Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell won its second consecutive race in GTE-Pro. The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda won its third consecutive race in GTE-Am.

Jamie Whincup and Shane Van Gisbergen won the Saturday Supercars races from Pukekohe Park Raceway. Mark Winterbottom and Whincup split the races on Sunday.

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Texas. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race, his second consecutive victory.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Brazilian Grand Prix marks the penultimate round of the Formula One season.
Valencia marks the final round of the MotoGP season.
Phoenix marks the penultimate round of the NASCAR season.
Motegi marks the final round of the Super GT season and it is a doubleheader.
Marrakesh marks the second round of the Formula E season and the first African round in series history.