While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
As easy as it would be to direct frustration at Sergey Sirotkin following the protracted confirmation that he will complete Williams’ 2018 roster, it’s the team that deserves derision.
The Russian’s ascension to the grid at the expense of Robert Kubica, whose return would have realised perhaps Formula One’s most romantic story, underlines the Grove outfit’s willingness to sacrifice the optimal line-up for financial security.
Alongside Lance Stroll, the pair form the most inexperienced combination in the field – at a combined age of 41 – yet this consideration is secondary to the backing provided by each camp.
It’s true that Williams were within its rights to take the conservative option, as punting on Kubica had the potential to backfire, and indeed the Pole didn’t set the world on fire at the post-season young driver test at Abu Dhabi.
Still, it appeared the 33-year-old had landed the drive and his mileage at Yas Marina was academic to the outcome, thus the disappointment is palpable.
Credit must be afforded to Sirotkin for his turn of speed at the same test. For somebody who hadn’t entered calculations, having cooled his heels patiently at Sauber and later Renault in various capacities, he had plenty to prove.
Williams chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe, concluded that “Sergey impressed the team with his driving pace and talent, technical feedback and work ethic”, yet it’s fallacy to suggest that the Russian earned the seat on this basis alone.
A reported 15 million euro windfall from his backers, SMP – doubling the Kubica camp’s offer of seven – is all that counts. Coupled with Stroll’s, the combined income came close to 100 million.
Draw from this what you wish, Williams is nothing if not an operation driven by bottom line.
Long gone are the heady title days, and for an outfit which has long prided itself on only offering a potential driver what it feels is reasonable, rather than what is commensurate to their reputation, the irony isn’t lost on this decision.
Having enjoyed scarce track time in any category through 2017, Sirotkin will have little time to shake off any rustiness as the inevitable cynics search for avenues to ridicule his berth over Kubica. Yet he must be given space to prove whether he warrants his breakthrough in his own right.
Kubica being handed development and reserve duties is difficult to swallow, There is faint hope that an opportunity could present itself in 2019 should Sirotkin, or daresay Stroll, implode spectacularly enough that their respective capital contributions must finally be overlooked.
The Pole remarked that “my ultimate goal is to race again in F1 and this is another important step in that direction”, which is reassuring to those who feared he might have called time on his heroic pursuit.
Liberty Media would undoubtedly have exploited the feel-good factor of a Kubica comeback, though the reality is a reminder that there isn’t any room for sentiment in an unforgiving climate.
Williams has made its own bed, yet if they don’t like what they see, few will be shedding tears for the formerly admirable independent, which has adopted the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality.