BAKU, Azerbaijan — When the critics were speculating over how he got a seat in Formula One, teenager Lance Stroll simply ignored them.
The 18-year-old Canadian driver, son of billionaire investor Lawrence Stroll, was right not to listen.
On Sunday, the Williams driver showed his genuine ability in finishing third at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. It was very nearly second place, too, but Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas surged past him in his faster Mercedes with the finish line just in sight.
Still, to secure a podium in only the eighth race of his career was an outstanding achievement, especially considering the flak Stroll took earlier in the season when he failed to finish his first three races, and four out of the first six.
“I am just lost for words. I can’t quite realize what just happened,” said Stroll, barely able to keep the smile off his face. “The last few races have been tricky, but it has all been worth it.”
His father, wearing a sky-blue shirt, looked emotional when his son stood on the race podium — barely old enough to drink the celebratory Champagne being passed around by race winner Daniel Ricciardo. Stroll also had to drink from one of Ricciardo’s race shoes, a jovial punishment the Australian driver likes to inflict on others.
It has been quite some turnaround for Stroll, who has had to deal with skeptics saying the financial backing his father brought to the Williams team is the only reason for his presence in F1.
“I don’t listen to that stuff, it’s just people talking,” Stroll said defiantly Sunday, when asked if the criticism affected him. “I’m just happy for myself, happy for my team, my friends, family. The rest is all just noise in the background and I don’t really care for it.”
The Montreal-born Stroll was drafted in by Williams when Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa announced his retirement at the end of last season. They are now teammates, because Massa came out of retirement after Bottas hurriedly left Williams to join Mercedes, following world champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement days after securing the 2016 F1 title.
Stroll, once part of the prestigious Ferrari driver academy, won last year’s European Formula 3 championship by a large margin.
“I want to be a quick driver — maybe the quickest one day,” Stroll said on joining Williams.
Quite some statement, perceived as misplaced confidence by some.
Stroll, the first Canadian in F1 since 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, has been financially backed by his father since he was eight.
They would watch F1 races together on Sunday mornings in Canada, and Stroll Jr. idolized seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher.
“They were good days. Michael was really my hero, growing up as a kid, a true champion on and off the track,” Stroll said. “He was just someone I really looked up to and I still look up to. To be here today on the podium is a part of the dream come true.”
After scoring points in two consecutive races, including a commendable ninth place at the Canadian GP two weeks ago, the criticism will probably stop.
But Stroll now faces a different challenge: maintaining his form.