Formula 1 is the most exclusive and expensive sport on the planet. Just 20 drivers will make up the grid for the 2017 season and, for the first time since 2006, one of them is Canadian. Eighteen-year-old Lance Stroll will make his debut on Sunday in the Australian Grand Prix after his father, fashion investor Lawrence, reportedly spent $80 million preparing him for F1 and securing him a seat with Williams Racing, the same team that brought Jacques Villeneuve into the series in 1996.
Villeneuve, the last Canadian to race in F1, won four grand prix in his first season and the World Drivers' Championship in his second, but despite the superficial similarities, we should not expect a similar rookie campaign from Stroll. He may be an incredibly talented driver (or not), but his skill behind the wheel will not be the most important factor in determining his success—it isn't for any F1 driver.
To win in a racing series like F1, where the cars are not equal, drivers have to get into the best possible machinery. Take the last three years for example: Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg won 51 of 59 races for Mercedes. Past champions like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso didn't suddenly forget how to drive, their cars just weren't quick enough.
Andrew Phillips is an applied mathematician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He is also an F1 enthusiast and published a mathematical model in the peer-reviewed Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports to compare and rank drivers across the history of the series—Moneyball for motorsports.
"The results are largely dictated for a driver by what team they're in," he explained to VICE Sports. "It's exactly what people have qualitatively argued over the years, it's just we're able to put a number on it using the model."
That number, it turns out, is 61 percent; in other words, driver performance accounts for less than 40 percent of the variance in results. The rest is governed by the car.
But aside from the quality of his ride, does Stroll even belong in F1? The Montreal native has taken plenty of criticism for buying his way into the sport and for his limited experience, but neither of those elements necessarily mean he doesn't belong.
Stroll actually has significantly more experience than Max Verstappen did when he burst into F1 as a 17-year-old in 2015. Last year, the Dutch teen won the Spanish Grand Prix for Red Bull (one of just two non-Mercedes victories).
And say all you want about the Stroll family money, but the kid has won championships wherever he has raced: Italian Formula 4, the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, and European Formula 3. Combine that résumé with an extensive testing program in a two-year-old Williams car and it is safe to say that Stroll at least has the basic skills required to drive in F1.
There's a lot more, however, to the pinnacle of motorsport than just driving. Craig Scarborough, who covers the technical side of F1 for Autosport, F1 Racing and a host of other outlets, foresees two major challenges for the Canadian that are common to most rookies as they adjust to F1: developing his racecraft while managing an extremely complicated car and dealing with the organized chaos of the paddock and increased demands on his time.
"That distracts the driver and it stops them, to some extent, working to their best," Scarborough told VICE Sports. "It's something some people take to and something other drivers don't. And we've seen very good drivers arrive in Formula One and been overcome by the other jobs that they need to do."
No matter how quickly Stroll acclimatizes to F1, though, it won't matter if the Williams car isn't competitive. The team is one of the most successful in F1 history—only Ferrari and McLaren have more wins—but the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s are a distant memory. Williams' last victory came in 2012, and that is their only win since 2004. Their last title was Villeneuve's, back in 1997.
When F1 switched from V8 to hybrid V6 power units in 2014, Williams parlayed their Mercedes engine deal into back-to-back third-place finishes in the constructors' standings. In 2016, though, they fell to fifth, scoring just one top-three finish in 21 races. This year again, there are significant changes to the technical regulations. This gives the teams with the largest budgets, backed by major car manufacturers like Ferrari and Mercedes (or the occasional energy drink producer), an advantage, as they can put more money into developing new parts.
"It's not a car that's really been completely rethought through for the new regulations," Scarborough said of Williams' FW40 after watching it in action over two weeks of preseason testing in Spain. "Obviously it is a completely new car for the regulations, but when you look at the concepts and the way the car is laid out, it's very much a development of last year's car adapted to make the new rules, as opposed to people like Ferrari and Mercedes that have got cars that are overtly, completely different in lots of concepts and details."
Barring lots of chaos or unreliability among the big teams, podium finishes might again be scarce for Stroll and his teammate, the nearly-retired Felipe Massa. But a lack of headline results in a midfield car will not mean Stroll has failed. It's all relative. Valtteri Bottas finished a pedestrian eighth in the drivers' standings last year for Williams, but he was Mercedes' top choice to replace the newly crowned world champion, Rosberg, after his shocking retirement.
In 2017, Massa will be an interesting point of comparison for Stroll. Although his peak years are behind him at the ripe old age of 35, he is still an 11-time grand prix winner. If the Canadian rookie can regularly beat the Brazilian veteran, it will bode well for Stroll's future in the sport, even if he does not replicate Villeneuve's spectacular debut.
Stroll will be called a "pay driver" this year, a derogatory term for drivers seen as buying, rather than earning, their race seats. But as Phillips explained, increased professionalism, better coaching, and improved data analysis have tightened the field. "The difference between the best and the worst drivers these days is probably less than two seconds if you were to put them in exactly the same car," he said.
"These days, even the pay drivers are pretty close to the best drivers on the grid."