WIL­LIAMS’ NEW BOY

Rus­sian rookie Sergey Sirotkin ar­rives in For­mula 1 with a point to prove – and with Robert Ku­bica wait­ing in the wings at Wil­liams, he’s got to prove it fast

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON PIC­TURES : GLENN DUN­BAR

For the first time as a race driver, Rus­sian Sergey Sirotkin pi­lots the Wil­liams at the Barcelona test

ON A FRIGID

Barcelona Mon­day, it couldn’t pass with­out comic men­tion that the ar­rival of a new Rus­sian driver in For­mula 1 co­in­cided with the pas­sage of the ‘Beast from the East’ weather front through much of Europe.

But that chilly blast was no laugh­ing mat­ter for F1, co­cooned though it is from most real-world hap­pen­ings, since chunks of the first three days’ run­ning were wiped out. In­deed, so brac­ing was it at the Cir­cuit de Catalunya that the small throng who as­sem­bled be­hind the Wil­liams garage on 26 March to cap­ture the thoughts of Sergey Sirotkin af­ter his first run in the Wil­liams FW41 could talk of lit­tle but how wretch­edly cold it was.

The main man showed no signs of dis­tress, how­ever, look­ing com­mend­ably up­beat as he emerged from the womb of the Wil­liams garage into the bit­ter early evening. He even man­aged to crack a joke: “Will I en­joy driv­ing in th­ese con­di­tions to­mor­row [his sec­ond test slot]? Huh! Of course you en­joy driv­ing For­mula 1. It doesn’t mat­ter what pro­gramme you do. But for sure we didn’t get the max from the day.”

The mo­ment cap­tured a prag­matic di­rect­ness, some­where south of blunt but well north of vanilla, and it was en­tirely in char­ac­ter ac­cord­ing to one com­pa­triot who knows Sergey well.

Dmitry Belousov has worked with Sirotkin since his 2013 For­mula Re­nault 3.5 sea­son, in his ca­pac­ity as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of SMP Rac­ing – a pro­gramme es­tab­lished with the ex­plicit in­tent of un­earthing a rac­ing star from Rus­sia or east­ern Europe. “Sergey is a very de­ter­mined char­ac­ter,” says Belousov, “as you will see this sea­son. He is very tal­ented and a worker, too. But more than any­thing, he is very strong men­tally.”

Even in the snap­shot back-of-the garage mo­ment af­ter a largely abortive first af­ter­noon in his 2018 race car, a hint of this qual­ity was man­i­fest. Some driv­ers would be more wideeyed af­ter their ‘first day at school’; others more down­beat at the weather-in­duced lack of com­pet­i­tive lap­ping. Sirotkin? Ph­leg­matic – im­me­di­ately com­part­men­tal­is­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence just past, while pro­cess­ing it for the next.

Per­haps we should ex­pect noth­ing less of this 22-year-old who can boast ‘en­gi­neer­ing de­gree’ on his CV along­side the rac­ing record. A wealthy back­ground and SMP sup­port have eased the path to F1 be­yond con­ven­tional imag­in­ing (his place at Wil­liams owes some­thing to a stipend es­ti­mated to be around $20m), but the sil­ver spoon feeds a na­tive hunger and in­tel­li­gence.

“Last year, be­ing out of rac­ing as re­serve driver for Re­nault nearly killed him,” con­fides Belousov. “He re­ally had to learn to be pa­tient.”

Hav­ing been given his F1 break, Sirotkin is in no mood to wait any longer. Dur­ing the

off-sea­son he re­lo­cated from Rus­sia to live within 20 min­utes’ com­mute of Wil­liams HQ. And by all ac­counts the team can’t keep him away, as he has availed him­self daily of their fit­ness fa­cil­i­ties while build­ing a rap­port with en­gi­neer­ing staff.

His aca­demic flu­ency in en­gi­neer­ing mat­ters has al­ready im­pressed Wil­liams chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer Paddy Lowe. “He un­der­stands tech­ni­cal things very quickly,” notes Lowe, “and he’s a very clever guy. He also has a fan­tas­tic work ethic and is very ma­ture for his age. He’s a plea­sure to work with.”

Deputy team boss Claire Wil­liams is an­other fan: “He’s a lovely guy,” she says, “and I think he’s go­ing to im­press peo­ple this year as he’s in­cred­i­bly keen to prove his tal­ent. I def­i­nitely hope that he does. When we an­nounced him I think some peo­ple were sur­prised, but if we didn’t have faith we wouldn’t have put him in the line-up. He was cho­sen af­ter the most ex­haus­tive eval­u­a­tion we have ever done.”

A race card that boasts con­sec­u­tive third-place fin­ishes in the GP2 cham­pi­onship in 2015 and 2016 leaves lit­tle doubt that Sirotkin knows how to turn a wheel, as do three wins along the way. “Sergey has done a very solid ap­pren­tice­ship in mo­tor rac­ing,” says Lowe, “and the SMP pro­gramme is re­ally tremen­dous. So he’s ready to make that step up to F1 and it’s ex­cit­ing to see what we’ll be able to do.”

All very on-mes­sage, but Sirotkin will surely face greater chal­lenges this sea­son than a for­bid­ding weather front – not least of which may come from within the team.

It’s a mat­ter of record that his drive was se­cured rel­a­tively late in the day af­ter the team had com­pleted eval­u­a­tion of the post-sea­son tests that pitched him against Robert Ku­bica, now Wil­liams’ third driver.

De­spite Ku­bica’s be­ing very much the fans’ favourite for the race seat – his come­back from a life-threat­en­ing in­jury is among F1’s great­est ever feel-good sto­ries – Robert’s pace proved in­con­clu­sive. He found it im­pos­si­ble to gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient ‘core’ heat in the Pirellis on the ul­tra-smooth Yas Ma­rina Cir­cuit, pre­vent­ing him from set­ting suf­fi­ciently quick one-lap times. Doubts were raised, there­fore, about his ul­ti­mate pace. Ku­bica of­fered as­sur­ances that with time and test­ing he’d un­lock more speed by per­fect­ing tyre prepa­ra­tion, but Wil­liams found them­selves in­ca­pable of mak­ing the ro­man­tics’ choice. They opted in­stead for Sirotkin, com­fort­able in the knowl­edge that he had hit ev­ery tar­get set and would bring a sack­ful of dol­lars, if signed.

None­the­less, a funny lit­tle thing hap­pened on the Tues­day af­ter­noon of Barcelona, as Ku­bica set­tled into his first FW41 run in near-freez­ing con­di­tions. It wasn’t that Ku­bica set a head­line best lap time of 1:21.495s, more than three­tenths faster than Sirotkin’s then best of 1:21.822s; tem­per­a­tures and track con­di­tions were so out of the or­di­nary they ren­dered di­rect com­par­i­son al­most – but not en­tirely – moot.

No, more sig­nif­i­cant was Lowe’s re­sponse to the ques­tion of how Wil­liams might re­act should Ku­bica – cur­rently con­fined to a test and re­serve role – prove to be their fastest driver.

A 13-sec­ond si­lence fol­lowed F1R’S in­no­cently posed ques­tion, be­fore Lowe sim­ply an­swered: “There is no an­swer to that ques­tion.”

Not yet, any­way.

“MORE SIG­NIF­I­CANT WAS PADDY LOWE’S RE­SPONSE TO THE QUES­TION OF HOW WIL­LIAMS MIGHT RE­ACT SHOULD KU­BICA PROVE TO BE FASTER”

Sirotkin brings great de­ter­mi­na­tion as well as a de­cent bud­get All eyes are now on how Sirotkin com­pares with Ku­bica on pace

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