The news Williams has chosen Sergey Sirotkin for the final seat on the 2018 grid was widely expected.
The positive development for Sirotkin inevitably comes as a disappointment to Robert Kubica and his many passionate supporters. Many of them hoped to see him make return to F1 competition seven years on from the rally crash which maimed him.
It’s the second time in four months a fairytale return for Kubica has failed to materialise. Last year after several tests with Renault Kubica was passed over in favour of Carlos Sainz Jnr.
Sainz could not reasonably be said to lack the experience and the credentials to deserve the place Kubica missed out on. But it’s harder to make that argument for Sirotkin.
Williams’s newest driver has some practice and test experience but is still a rookie. His record in the junior championships is decent (he’s no Sean Gelael) but not exceptional (he’s no Charles Leclerc).
But Sirotkin brings significant financial backing from Russian bank SMP. The logos of their driver development programme SMP Racing have been prominent on Sirotkin’s overalls and cars throughout his career.
Williams certainly need the income and F1 Fanatic understands that proved decisive. Chief technical officer Paddy Lowe, who became a shareholder when he returned to the team last March, strongly favoured appointing Sirotkin, a move he expects will bring long-term benefits for the team.
Since the Yas Marina at the end of last year much ink has been spilled assessing which driver was quickest. Kubica lapped half a second faster than Sirotkin but on tyres which were three stages softer. Given how little we know of variables such as fuel loads, set-ups, tracks conditions and so on, it’s far from a useful basis for comparison, but one which appears to indicate Sirotkin gave little away to Kubica in terms of lap time, if anything.
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If by investing this new line of income from Sirotkin into car development Lowe can find a lap time gain on the FW41 – and, crucially, its successors – the decision to go with him instead of Kubica becomes clear.
Williams has had F1’s best power unit for the past four seasons but has gradually declined in competitiveness. That indicates everything they can throw at the chassis would be money well spent.
Besides which, the door isn’t closed to Kubica. He will continue to drive for the team in tests and practice sessions and Williams say he will “be available to stand in as the race driver if required”.
Will such an opportunity arise? Those who’ve paid attention to the rising prominence of Russian drivers in motor sport will recall the problems which kept SMP-backed driver Mikhail Aleshin from his IndyCar seat for most of 2015.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea the year before several prominent supporters of Russian president Vladimir Putin were subject to sanctions. They included SMP bank co-founder Boris Rotenberg.
Williams is a listed company and its reporting obligations means Sirotkin’s link to Rotenberg will have been discussed and approved at board level. Note that while the US imposed sanctions on Boris Rotenberg the European Union did not (his brother did appear on the EU list), so in a similar case this would not necessarily affect Sirotkin’s position.
Nonetheless, the team has a driver waiting in the wings if they need one. And, unlike when Paul di Resta took over Felipe Massa’s car at the Hungaroring last year, he will already be familiar with their current chassis.
Passing up on the chance to bring Kubica back in favour of adding a second well-funded driver to their roster is not the fairytale story many hoped for. But Williams isn’t the first team to spend its money on the car rather than the driver.
2018 F1 season
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- ‘It doesn’t matter if we start last’: How Red Bull’s junior team aided Honda’s leap forward
- Honda’s jet division helped F1 engineers solve power unit problem
- McLaren Racing losses rise after Honda split
- Ricciardo: Baku “s***show” was Red Bull’s fault