Is it ok to disagree with Claire Williams?

Is it okay to disagree with Claire Williams from time to time? I find myself in one of those situations at the moment concerning her pay-driver Lance Stroll. I defended the young man, and his father, when the mobocracy on social media had a go at them for paying their way into a top seat in F1 and lambasted the concept of paying drivers—which I said was a reality in today’s motorsport world.

Whether Lance’s wealthy father, Lawrence, contributed significantly to the budget of Williams F1 or not, many team’s seem bereft of the skill, desire or opportunity of landing big sponsorship deals these days and doing tactical keep-the-lights-on types of deals with young drivers and their wealthy backers is the new Vodafone, Marlboro, West, or HSBC sponsor deal. I don’t like it much but there’s very little that can be done about it at the moment because few sponsors are willing to funnel $30 million into a title sponsor deal in F1 these days.

I get the concept, I understand paying drivers have been around for decades and I understand Adam Cooper’s point in his article at Motorsport where he quotes Claire Williams as defending Stroll as a pay-driver.

“There are commercial considerations for any team principal when they put a driver in,” she says. “Alonso comes with financial backing, maybe not personal, but he attracts sponsors. Santander is there because of him. I don’t understand why in this sport that is such a business there is such negative connotation around a driver that brings backing.

“And not only in F1. Motorsport as a whole is such an expensive business, you don’t get into the upper echelons of motor sport unless you can find significant budgets to go racing.

“I don’t know why people criticise drivers when they have financial backing, because if they didn’t then so many teams in this sport wouldn’t necessarily survive, and then this sport wouldn’t survive.”

I agree with much of her statement it but when Adam Cooper asks:

“Rarely has the arrival of an F1 rookie prompted as much debate as that of European F3 Champion Lance Stroll, who turned 18 in October. Why the rush to put him straight into a Williams race seat?”

I think I know the answer to that question—Max Verstappen. Teams see the success of Max and think they have an equally fast, mature and champion-in-the-wings too and that perhaps youth is a better investment in the long term than a 25-year-old. At least their investment has some longevity to it presumably. That’s if the young driver delivers like Max does.

As for Claire, here is where I start to disagree, if you’ll indulge me.

“When it comes to Lance I think we out of a courtesy should reserve judgement,” says deputy team principal Claire Williams.

“I think that considering his age he’s achieved a huge amount. He’s won every championship he’s taken part in, particularly this year in the F3 championship.

“As everybody knows, Williams isn’t a team that would put their stake into a driver that they didn’t believe could deliver.

“We’re a serious team with serious ambitions, and I am not going to put a driver in a car that I don’t believe will deliver. I believe that Lance will. Yes, he’s going to be a rookie, yes, he’s going to make mistakes.

“But from everything we’ve seen in his test programme, he’s a really fast learner.”

Are they being a serious team with serious ambition and committed to placing only drivers who will deliver? Perhaps that’s all contextual. Deliver at what level, Claire? Losing 4th place in the championship was said to be no big deal by Rob Smedley and giving up your top driver, Valtteri Bottas, to Mercedes for what one can only assume is a cheaper engine supply contract isn’t exactly what I would consider serious ambition given Valtteri’s skills and penchant for being your primary points scorer in 2016.

Ambition to remain solvent if not slightly profitable? Then yes. Ambitious to win races or seek podiums and 3rd in the championship? I have my doubts. Bringing Massa back to sometimes finish with a few points and lead a youngster into a season with massive regulation changes? I’m not quite sure about putting your stake only on drivers who deliver.

I’ve no axe to grind with Claire, she knows her team, her business and her racing. I’m just not quite sure I agree with her statement about how Williams rolls when it comes to money over matter. I’m not berating her because I know team economics have to work and no matter what you would like to do, Williams have made solvency and sustainable employment for their employees the top priority and I respect that immensely. They are privateers who know that they are in F1 for the long-term and the team has to be a business first, racing team second because without the first part, there is no second part.

I hope Lance delivers and given his past performance history, perhaps he will. I hope Felipe Massa can turn his head around from a retired driver to a driver re-committed to winning races. I do not believe youth is the secret ingredient to F1 success as I feel Max Verstappen is an anomaly that only comes around once in a while.

Will lightning strike twice in the course of a couple of years? Can Lance achieve what Max has? Perhaps unlike Claire, I’m not inclined to think so as I believe Max is something quite unique but like Claire, I think we owe it to Lance to give him a chance to prove his skills and then see where we are. In the mean time, Claire will be down at the bank cashing those Lawrence Stroll checks and cleaning out Valtteri’s office to make room for a retired driver and taking delivery of those cheap/free Mercedes engines.

Hat Tip: Motorsport