LONDON (Reuters) - Williams defended their young and inexperienced Formula One drivers on Thursday, denying that the choice of Russian Sergey Sirotkin and Canadian teenager Lance Stroll had been swayed by money.
The combination of 22-year-old debutant Sirotkin and Stroll, 19, is the former world champions’ youngest and rawest lineup yet.
Stroll, who stood on the podium as a rookie in Baku last season, is the son of a billionaire while Sirotkin has been backed through the junior series by Russian oligarch Boris Rotenberg.
“We would only put talented drivers in our car,” deputy team principal Claire Williams told reporters when questioned at a team launch.
“This is a dangerous business and we’re not going to put someone in a car just because they come with money.
“Our decision-making process is so much more complex than just deciding to put a driver into the race seat because they have some cash,” she added.
“Yes, we are an independent team and yes, sponsorship is really difficult to come by these days... so clearly if a driver has some financial backing then that is an added bonus, but it’s not the foundation for a decision-making process at Williams.”
The family-owned team, founded by Frank Williams, have to pay for their Mercedes engines and compete against manufacturers with far bigger budgets.
They have finished fifth overall for the past two seasons, after ending up third overall in 2015, and last won a grand prix in 2012.
The team that won titles in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of champions including Brazilian Nelson Piquet, Frenchman Alain Prost and Britons Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, have had to budget carefully.
That has included looking to ‘pay drivers’, a term often used for those who may have more money than talent.
Ross Brawn, now a managing director of Formula One after winning titles with several teams including his own, has said he wants to see a “proper meritocracy” with only the best 20 drivers on track.
“It is nothing new in Formula One that drivers come with money, and thank goodness they do,” said Williams, saying it was ‘incredibly naive’ for anyone to say someone was ‘just a pay driver’.
She pointed out that plenty of top drivers owed their careers to backers getting behind them early on.
“(Spanish bank) Santander has followed (double world champion) Fernando Alonso to every team he has been to. You could suggest he is a pay driver, I would not do such a thing,” she added.
“The vocabulary used around pay drivers is wrong, it’s inappropriate and it’s unnecessary. it puts a negativity around a driver that we just should not be doing in this sport anymore.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge