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
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