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Motor racing - Teenager Stroll is now the face of experience at Williams

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Lance Stroll is still Formula One's youngest driver but the 19-year-old Canadian will also be his Williams team's most experienced man on the starting grid this season.

It is quite a departure for one of the sport's leading constructors, once-dominant former champions whose cars have been graced by a roll call of greats but now without a race win since 2012.

With just 20 grands prix under his belt, Stroll now has 22-year-old Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin as team mate in place of departed Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa.

There are those who see a slide down the standings as the campaign proceeds, with the Mercedes-powered car not looking particularly quick in testing either, but Stroll is understandably not one of them.

"Williams made a decision to take us on board and that’s how it is. I don’t think it’s a bad thing," the driver, son of a billionaire, told Reuters during testing in Spain ahead of next week's season-opener in Australia.

"I think, just like everyone else, if we do a good job as a team we can get some good results."

The teenager did his best to win over the doubters in 2017 with a front row start, the only podium by a driver outside the top three teams and a place in the record books.

But he recognizes some may never be convinced that he is more than a rich kid whose father's money has given him every advantage.

"There will always be jealous people and haters, people who assume that if they were in your shoes they could do what you’re doing," he said. "That’s just the world we live in.

"All I can do is my talking on the track, and I believe that when they look at the facts people can judge for themselves if its good or bad. I believe that so far it’s been a great journey."

CLARITY

Stroll, who finished third in Azerbaijan last June to become the youngest rookie to stand on an F1 podium and started on the front row in Italy for the fastest race of them all, assessed his strengths and weaknesses over the winter.

On the plus side, he ended 2017 with 40 points, just three fewer than Massa.

He had seven points finishes, his first coming on home soil in Canada, and ended up 12th in the championship with Williams fifth overall.

On the down side, he made some rookie errors and drew a blank in his first six races.

Statistics compiled by tire supplier Pirelli showed that Stroll also gained 36 places in the season's opening laps, more than any driver -- suggesting he had the car to qualify higher than he did.

"It’s too easy to look back and say ‘I could have, should have, would have done that assuming everything worked out’," said the Montreal-born driver.

"But definitely I just have better clarity on things, having a year under my belt, than I did last year seeing every race as it came for the first time.

"I think clarity is the right word, there’s nothing really more to it.

"I had speed at times last year, and it was good, but generally I can expect what’s coming now compared to where I was this time last year."

The Canadian, who was named as a Williams driver before he had passed his regular driving test, has faced regular questions about his father's financial support. The subject still triggers an animated response.

"I won F4 and I won F3, F3 by I believe the biggest margin in history and as one of the youngest drivers in history. I’m just pointing out facts, I’m not bragging or anything," he emphasized.

"So I believe that already answers the question about the money, when I arrived in Formula One whether I deserved my spot or not. But people didn’t really want to see that."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)