At the end of the Monaco Grand Prix a few weeks ago, a Formula One commentator asked Lance Stroll if he had any messages for his fans back home.
"Stay with me," Stroll said, straining to mask the disappointment in his voice. "Keep your heads up and it'll come – it'll come."
The rookie Canadian driver, having struggled mightily this season, had just been forced to retire from the race with seven laps to go because of mechanical problems with his car.
Six races into his debut, Stroll has just two finishes, in 11th and 16th, this year. Mechanical issues halted two races, while another two were ended by crashes. One of those – a collision with Carlos Sainz Jr. in Bahrain – resulted in a penalty to the opposing driver. But as vindicating as that ruling was for Stroll, it ultimately could not change the result.
Heading into this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal – where Stroll will be celebrated as the first driver to represent Canada since Jacques Villeneuve in 2006 – there is a chance for renewal for the 18-year-old. It is an opportunity for Stroll to gather himself with two-thirds of the season still to go, and perhaps build toward a stronger finish.
He'll be among family and friends, on a course he's visited often since he was a boy, sitting in the grandstand watching some of the same drivers he'll be competing against. Ticket sales have surged for the event, as Canadian fans clamour to see a hometown driver back on the grid.
But Stroll's homecoming also comes at a time when criticism is mounting, given the results of his first six races. Though critics have always dogged him, Stroll and his team can feel the temperature rising.
After dominating the F3 championship last year – a stepping-stone into racing's highest echelon – Stroll entered Formula One as the youngest driver on the circuit, and the second youngest ever to debut. In the conspicuously moneyed world of auto sport, naysayers pointed to the financial clout of his billionaire father, Lawrence, as the reason Stroll was able to move into F1 so quickly with Williams Martini Racing, saying that he hasn't paid his dues.
The lack of results has only added to that chorus – and to the scrutiny. In Monaco, Stroll sparked a minor controversy with an off-hand comment that probably would have been forgotten had any other driver made it. After crashing in practice on the notoriously challenging narrow street circuit, Stroll lamented that he misjudged the same corner that always gives him trouble when driving the Monaco course on his PlayStation.
"I just lost the rear of the car," Stroll said. "Corner 8 and the last corner are the two places that I need to improve on, and it really pisses me off, because every time I play the PlayStation game, it's always those two corners that I couldn't get right."
His teammate, Felipe Massa, came to his defence – telling Stroll something along the lines of, 'Don't worry kid, everybody crashes their first time in Monaco' – but the PlayStation line landed with a clang among racing purists. Even though several drivers, Villeneuve among them, have used video games for years as a kind of rudimentary simulator to familiarize themselves with tracks around the world, Stroll was accused of being flippant, and comparing Formula One to a game.
In recent days, Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams openly called for Stroll's critics to cool it, saying that many winning drivers have struggled in the early months of their first season, and that Stroll is no different.
"I think the criticism that has been levelled at him is grossly unfair," Williams told a reporter from Autosport.
"If you look at some of the drivers that we have in our sport that are up there winning races and their statistics from the first six races, they are pretty similar," Williams said. "People need to look at precedent before they start criticizing."
As he prepares for the Canadian Grand Prix, Stroll knows the only surefire way to silence the naysayers will be to begin producing on the track, and he'd like to start that in Montreal.
"It's going to be good to go home," Stroll said. "It's not only my home country, it's not only my home race, but it's my home city. I grew up 20 minutes away from the racetrack," he said. "I'm going to get to sleep in my bed, in my house, and wake up like I've woken up to go to GoKart races [as a child]. But this time it's going to be going to the Grand Prix. It's going to be amazing."
Producing on the track in his rookie season doesn't necessarily mean Stroll must win, but it does mean he'll need to start logging top-10 finishes to build points in the standing for Williams.
So far, the 20 points accumulated by the team this year have all been claimed by Massa.
Those points matter a great deal, too, since they are used by Formula One to allocate funds to each team at the end of the year. Last season, Williams finished fifth out of 10 teams in the Formula One constructor standing. The team sits sixth this year, and a drop of one or two spots could be worth $10-million (U.S.) to $15-million by some estimates.
Stroll is eager to get on the track in Montreal, which he calls a throwback to a bygone era of racing where the grandstands are nearer to the track, and the paddock is more cramped.
"It's kind of old-school. The crowd is closer to the track there, the grandstands aren't huge, and the runoff isn't massive, but I love that and I think it shouldn't change. I think that's what makes it really cool," Stroll said.
"The city is buzzing, it's one of the best weekends in Montreal of the year. … For me it's home, so it's even better."