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Canadian Formula One driver Lance Stroll navigates his Williams Martini Racing FW41 Mercedes around the track at Albert Park during a training run for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 23.

Charles Coates/Getty Images

It's been a year since Lance Stroll made his Formula One debut, but to him it feels like a lifetime.

"When I look back at it, it feels like a long time ago because a lot has happened," Stroll said as he and his Williams team prepared for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, the maiden voyage of the Formula One season.

Stroll could be forgiven if the past 12 months were a lot to digest. A year ago, he ventured onto the grid in Melbourne as an 18-year-old rookie – the youngest driver on the circuit – amid a chorus of criticism that he had been brought in too soon and wasn't ready.

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It didn't help that Stroll, the first Canadian in Formula One since Jacques Villeneuve a decade earlier, drew the harshest criticism from the former champion himself, who said the Montreal-born Stroll doesn't have what it takes to race in the sport's most technically demanding discipline.

And early on, Stroll's detractors had a lot to crow about. His debut in Australia ended prematurely when a brake failure forced him out. It was the first of several disappointing results: Six races in, Stroll logged just two finishes, in 11th and 16th.

But on his home track in Montreal last summer, Stroll began to turn things around. He collected his first points at the Canadian Grand Prix, then placed third in Azerbaijan, becoming the youngest rookie ever to ascend to the podium. In Italy, still 56 days shy of his 19th birthday, he became the youngest driver to start on the front row.

And when the season ended, Stroll was the only competitor outside of the sport's big three – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – to land a podium finish. His 40 points were three behind veteran Williams teammate Felipe Massa, and good enough for 12th over all.

If Stroll could somehow go back and erase those first six races of his career, he would. But, then again, he knows how valuable the hard times have been to his development.

Although it's only been a year, he feels as though he's come a long way from the teenager whose entrée into Formula One made headlines around the world.

"In a way, I kind of got thrown into the deep end and I had to manage," Stroll said.

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"This year is a new year. I have a year under my belt now of experience, so I'm a different man."

Stroll sounds more relaxed, more serious, a bit more reserved than he did going into last season. Perhaps it's maturity, but he's gleaned a few things from his rookie year – mainly, that only perseverance will overcome the difficult moments.

"That's something I learned last year, is even if it doesn't start off perfectly … it's such a long year, that it's just really important to remain calm and stay in the moment," Stroll said. "Because so much changes and so much happens that it's important to take it day by day, and weekend by weekend."

Entering the new season, the Williams paddock has undergone a significant shift. Massa has retired and, in his place, the British-based team signed 22-year-old Sergey Sirotkin to race alongside Stroll, adding to its youth movement.

Much like the criticism Stroll heard after entering Formula One with the financial backing of his billionaire father, fashion magnate Lawrence Stroll, Sirotkin faces the same detractors who say his way into the sport has been paved by Russian oligarch Boris Rotenberg.

However, Williams's deputy team principal, Claire Williams, called those criticisms, "a load of old rubbish" in an interview with Britain's Sky Sports last month. Stroll and Sirotkin both won at racing's lower levels, she argued. The team wants to hone their skill in Formula One.

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"What's wrong with bringing new talent into the sport?" Williams said. "That's what we all complain about, isn't it?"

Though Sirotkin is two years older, Stroll now finds himself as the more experienced driver, with a full season already in the books. However, in Massa's absence, Stroll doesn't see himself as the leader – just part of the team.

"My job remains the same, regardless of who's on the other side of the garage," Stroll said. "Of course, we don't have the most experienced lineup, but there's some good people around us, a lot of experience around the engineering table in order to help us. So we have a good team in place."

Williams also enters the 2018 season with an aggressively re-engineered car, imagined by Paddy Lowe, who helped Mercedes to three consecutive constructors' championships in recent years.

The team spent much of the winter on balancing the car and, with Stroll spending the full off-season at Williams, he was able to have more input than he did last year on how he wanted the car to feel.

Lowe told reporters recently that Stroll is "on a completely different level to how he was 12 months ago." Stroll believes his biggest advancements heading into this season are a working knowledge of each track, after seeing many of the venues for the first time last year, and a better understanding of how to manage his tires on each lap. Tire wear can make or break a race in ways that Stroll never saw while dominating the Formula Three ranks.

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But how the new Williams car will perform in races remains a mystery. During testing in Barcelona, the team turned in slower laps than some of its peers, suggesting Williams may have to fight if it wants to improve on its fifth-place finish in last season's constructor standing.

"We definitely have to be concerned, because it's not a secret that everyone looks pretty good this year so it's going to be competitive," Stroll said. "But, at the same time, I think we just have to remain calm and wait to see what happens this weekend, where we stand."

Stroll knows he will always have his detractors. But last year's podium finish is something they can't take away.

"It's now in the bag – that podium happened. It's there. I can always look back at it and enjoy that memory. And we definitely, hopefully, want to get many more of those kind of results," Stroll said.

"You always want more. You always want the car to go quicker. So unless we're winning races, it's not enough."

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