FIA European Formula 3 Championship leader Lance Stroll believes he can follow the trail blazed by Max Verstappen as he sets his own sights on a Formula 1 future.
Stroll, 17, leads the series by 61 points after 21 races with Prema Powerteam, having finished fifth in last year's championship in his rookie year with the Italian team.
Having spent time on the Ferrari Driver Academy programme, Stroll is now signed to Williams F1 as a development driver.
At Spa-Francorchamps he sat down for an exclusive interview with Andrew van Leeuwen, to speak about his past, his fashion-magnate father and his hopes for a future that leads to F1.
Do you feel that your career is about where you want it to be right now?
I think so. I think, me as a driver, I'm getting better by the day. I'm getting stronger on and off the track.
Being my second year in F3, the goal was to win the championship, and still is to win the championship. At the moment we're leading, we have a bit of a margin but things can change very quickly. So we need to stay focused.
After [the Spa] weekend we have nine races remaining, so we're 100 percent focused on that.
But yeah, I'm pleased where my career is heading at the moment. Since I've been in cars I've won a couple of championships in Formula 4, in New Zealand in the Toyota Racing Series, last year I had a good rookie season in Formula 3 – I made a few mistakes in the middle but I came back and I was fifth in the championship, which is a solid rookie season. And this season it's been going very well.
There were a few bumps in the road last year, but Max Verstappen has shown how quickly a young driver can develop, right?
Absolutely. He's a perfect example. In his Formula 3 season he did spectacular things, but he also had his moments and his crashes. The unbelievable overtakes outweighed the crashes. I think that all young drivers go through a point in their career where they make a few mistakes.
Mine were very visible, because they were at the front of the pack. I was leading the race with one, another I was in a podium position. These things happen, I'm over it now. It was already a year ago.
And the important thing is that you learn from it; this year I've been a much more consistent driver, Last year I was waiting for my turn to win, and I was anxious to get it. This season it's come to me; I have a bit more experience, I know the championship, I know the car, and it's going well.
It seems as if you had a good relationship with Felix Rosenqvist and Jake Dennis last year – does it help having guys like that to bounce off as a rookie?
A tremendous amount. It helped me mature as a driver, it helped me learn as a driver. I wasn't competing with them… I was competing with them on the track obviously, but for Felix it was his fifth season, and Jake's second season, so I knew that I was the rookie, and I was the one chasing them. Sometimes I would be a little bit quicker, but they would immediately step up their game and I would have to go and catch them again, go and learn something new and understand where to improve.
I took it as a year of experience, I didn't put myself into a position to challenge them and go against them. I was friendly with them, and I wanted to learn for this year.
Felix especially was a huge teammate for me. In terms of one-lap pace, and how to manage a championship. Even after five years, at the end of the season he got it all together but he had points in the season where it was looking really tough.
But I got really lucky to have teammates like them that taught me so much about racing, about qualifying, about every part of the weekend and every scenario in the championship.
You won in F4, you won TRS… Is it sometimes frustrating that there's so much focus on your backing when you're actually getting runs on the board?
It's frustrating, but at the same time I can't change it. My dad is rich. I can't deny that. All I can do is go out and do the best I can. I have won, and I am winning.
For sure it's frustrating. Maybe I don't get the credit I deserve sometimes. But I try not to look at all those negative things, I try and be positive. I know that I'm the guy sitting in the cockpit driving the car. The other stuff… that's just details.
The people who understand that, good for them. And the people that want to be jealous, you know, maybe they want to find excuses. I don't waste my time with that stuff.
Tell me about your role with Williams…
It's been a great eight months with them. It's been fantastic. The cooperation with me in F3 is great, they have the right understanding of me focussing 100 percent on F3 and not getting distracted with Formula 1.
They just want me to finish the championship, they're not pressuring me to jump in an F1 car and doing testing and things like that. They want me to focus on one thing at a time, and that's great.
Every time I go to the factory everyone is really friendly, and I'm really happy to be with them.
Is there a direct involvement from Williams in your F3 programme?
No, no. It's more of an indirect involvement. They are supervising what I'm doing, and I have some simulator days with them. It's more keeping me under their wing for the future.
Whether it's testing in an older car, or FP1 outings, do you see yourself in an F1 car before the end of the year?
I definitely hope so, but towards the end of the year. It would have to be at the end of the year for an FP1 anyway because I'm still 17. I turn 18 at the end of October, so if it did happen it would have to be after then. And I don't even know the situation with their race drivers and contracts, or if it is even possible. I'm not focussed on that.
Maybe an older car. A test or two before the end of the season could be very possible. But all those details are still to be discussed.
If the opportunity to jump into a Formula 1 race seat in 2017 came up, do you feel you'll be ready?
I do… but it's easy to say it. I haven't driven an F1 car yet, so I don't have a complete understanding of what it's like. Once I have a couple of tests under my belt, a bit more experience, then I'll have a much better idea of if I'm ready to make that step just yet or not.
At the moment I'm blind in terms of F1. I've driven F3, I've driven a couple of other categories, but I've never really sat in an F1 car. So I don't know how much different it is to what I'm doing now, how much more complicated it is, how much tougher it is. They are all things I'll figure out along the road.
But if… if it is just another step, and if I'm comfortable in the car, then why not? F3 is a very high level, we've seen guys like Max – and I don't want to use him as the example every time because maybe he's an exception – but even guys like Ocon, Rosenqvist, these are guys that could do it as well.
Now it's my year; I'm leading the championship. The championship is not done yet, but I think I've got to a level where I'd be able to step up to an F1 seat if the opportunity came along. The hardest thing is the opportunity. There are a lot of drivers in the world who are able to do it, but they just don't get the chance. There are only 20 seats. It's tough to get one of them.
I guess the bonus for you is that you're still only 17. You have a little bit of time…
Oh yeah, more than a little bit. I don't want to rush, and I'm not 25 years old. I'm still 17, so you're right, I have some time ahead of me.
But taking opportunities is important as well. We can't just think 'oh we have time, take another year, and another year' because before you know it, it's too late and there is another 17-year-old.
But one thing at a time. This year, we're concentrating on the F3 championship. Next year, we'll be in whatever it is, GP2, F1, IndyCar – whatever comes up.
Do you keep an eye on Prema's GP2 progress as well, in case things head that way for 2017?
Yeah, for sure! I think that's really great to know that Prema are extremely competitive, beyond expectations for their first season in GP2. That is another link. If Prema want to make a deal, and that's a sensible choice for us, that's another great option.
Formula 1 is the objective. How we get there, when we get there, I don't know. We'll wait and see.