Only one driver in the history of Formula One has been younger on debut, and, with respect to 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll, Max Verstappen might just be in a category all his own.
Verstappen was 17, made a few mistakes, but without consequence because his gifts made our eyes shiver. The Dutch tyro arrived with a reputation for blinding speed carved in Formula Renault. Red Bull signed him to its junior programme and thrust him into F1 the following year in 2015.
Stroll, too, has racked up the race wins in karting and junior formulas, racing to the F3 Championship last year and before that the Italian Formula Four title. He is ferociously quick but that is not enough to appease the green-eyed doubters, who seem unable or unwilling to separate Stroll’s progress from his father’s billions.
Lawrence Stroll is the entrepreneur behind global fashion brands Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors. Though no-one has seen the receipts, it is estimated the cost to Stroll in bankrolling his son’s career totals $40 million to date, including ownership of the victorious Prema Power F3 team.
Doubtless dad’s cash was persuasive in the agreement that sees him in a Williams at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix season opener alongside Felipe Massa. But that does not make him a bad driver.
Stroll has been on the young driver radar since Ferrari signed him to their junior programme, aged 11. Money might get the boy in a seat but it does not propel the car. This Stroll has managed with some success, but not enough to cut the cord attaching him to his father. Thus Formula 1 becomes not only an examination of his ability but an opportunity to become himself, to establish a reputation above and beyond his father’s reach. Family bullion has brought him to this point, but no pocket is deep enough to keep him here if the talent runs out.
Speaking to the Montreal Star, fellow Montrealer Jacques Villeneuve made that very point. “The potential is there. His results have been amazing. He’s super-fast. He works well with the team at setting the car and he’s well-educated. He seems to be extremely passionate as well.
“So, all the ingredients are there. It’s for him to make a good cake out of it. He’s fortunate to have the father he’s had. But now that he’s in F1, it’s in his hands. I’m normally not positive with young kids coming into F1 but I’m very positive with him.”
To a greater or lesser degree, cash is part of the progression from karts to F1. A local businessman helped fund Michael Schumacher’s karting career. The great Ayrton Senna’s family was not without funds and he was sponsored by a Brazilian bank.
Lewis Hamilton started life in social housing but had McLaren behind him from the age of 13, the same age as Sebastian Vettel entered the Red Bull young driver programme. Stroll’s family vault facilitated his rise. Now, as Villeneuve observed, it’s down to him.
“Everything is a step up and, sometimes, some drivers don’t make the step up. The potential is there. I’m confident it will go well. But we will have to wait and see. We just don’t know,” Villeneuve said.
Stroll found the learning curve steep in the first week of winter testing in Barcelona, crashing after just 12 laps and then forcing the premature end to the programme when slamming into the barriers on the third day. The second week was more productive, ending with 132 laps on day four.
Stroll is not deaf to the haters, but pays them no heed. “I don’t care about the critics. It’s none of my business,” he said at the end of the final test. “We’re all professionals. Things happen in motorsports and you’ve just got to bounce back from it.
“It’s all pretty straightforward to everyone. It was a frustrating week but we set our minds on [week two] and did a good job.
“We got all our running in, long runs, short runs, all compounds of tyres, so it was a good week.”
And this will be a week like no other, with more than 300,000 through the Albert Park gates, 100,000 of them on race day. Numbers like that afford no place to hide, but then, Stroll has not come this far to blend in.