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Williams driver for 2017 Lance Stroll sits on a car during the 2017 Formula One driver line-up at Williams headquarters in Grove, southern England, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. (David Davies/AP)
Williams driver for 2017 Lance Stroll sits on a car during the 2017 Formula One driver line-up at Williams headquarters in Grove, southern England, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. (David Davies/AP)

Canadian Lance Stroll is the world’s newest – and youngest – F1 driver Add to ...

For as long as he can remember, Lance Stroll has done nothing but drive fast. It began with go-karts as a boy in Quebec, then evolved to race cars. In the past year alone, the 18-year-old from Montreal can’t recall going more than a few days without racing, either in competition, during training, or inside a simulator. Along the way, he’s been dubbed a prodigy – a future star who could return Canada to Formula One glory after a long absence from the sport.

For all that time at the wheel, though, there is one thing Stroll still does not have: an actual licence to drive.

Despite being unveiled this week as the world’s newest F1 driver, with the announcement by British-based Williams Racing that he will represent the team next season, Stroll has been too busy racing to get his driver’s licence, which he now plans to do.

How would he fare in a regular car?

“I don’t know,” Stroll says, wondering about parallel parking. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Any questions about his ability on a racetrack were answered this season when Stroll dominated the European Formula 3 circuit, winning 14 of 30 races and becoming the youngest driver and first North American to win the championship, which is considered a stepping stone to F1.

That victory landed Stroll a coveted Super Licence, which allows him to drive in F1, at more than three times the legal speed limit of a Canadian highway. He hopes to get his regular driver’s licence this fall.

He’s got precious little time to do it. Less than five months from now, on March 26, Stroll will make his debut for Williams at the Australian Grand Prix, representing a new hope for a team that once ruled F1 in the 1980s and 1990s but has since fallen on mediocre times.

Stroll will be the youngest driver in F1 next season, and his debut will be the second-youngest the sport has seen. Only Belgian-born Max Verstappen, who arrived in F1 last year, roughly six months shy of his 18th birthday, got an earlier start than Stroll.

That Williams has turned to a young driver, such as Stroll, is in indicator of the youth movement sweeping through F1. It’s also an acknowledgment that Williams is desperately hoping Stroll can revive its fortunes – and that with the retirement of Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, the team is willing to strike out in a bold direction.

With seven drivers’ championships and nine constructors’ championships, awarded to the team that amasses the most points from both cars, Williams is among the most successful F1 teams in history. But all of those titles came between 1980 and 1997. In the past 12 seasons, the team has won just a single race, in 2012.

“We have very clear ambitions for the future. And if we’re to achieve those ambitions we need great talent in our two race cars,” said Claire Williams, whose father Frank Williams started Williams Racing in the 1970s and has since passed the reins of the F1 program to his daughter.

“He’s the full package for us,” Claire Williams said of Stroll. “He has the talent in the cockpit, he’s intelligent, he gives great feedback to the engineers and he’s a really quick learner. So for us it was a very easy decision.”

Stroll represents “a new chapter in Williams’ history,” she said.

Williams then pointed out that the last time the team won a championship, in 1997, it was a Canadian – Jacques Villeneuve – behind the wheel.

“I hope that’s some kind of fateful coincidence,” Williams said.

Canada has been absent from F1 since Villeneuve left in 2006. But now that the future of one of Britain’s vaunted racing outfits relies in part on the fortunes of a Canadian, Stroll is finding himself under heightened scrutiny and increased pressure to deliver.

Even before the formal announcement was made this week, questions swirled in the European racing press in anticipation of the move: Was Stroll ready? Was he too young? What about British drivers passed over for the spot? And was Stroll only picked because of his billionaire father – fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll, who made his fortune bankrolling the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors?

The question about money has dogged Stroll more than any other. F1 is a moneyed sport with high overhead – climbing the junior ranks alone can cost more than $2-million a year – but his father’s wealth has always given Stroll’s detractors fodder, arguing that cash has paved his way to F1, more than results.

During a news conference at the Williams sprawling facility, Stroll was asked repeatedly, in various ways, by the racing press if it was his father’s money that got him there.

British TV network Sky Sports, which follows F1 closely, wrote that Stroll had been branded a “pay driver” within the sport, a derogatory term that describes drivers who put up cash to secure a coveted seat on the 22-car grid.

“I know there have been a lot of comments about Lance’s background and I want to make it clear Williams has been a team that has made a statement of intent we would not allow financial considerations to influence our driver choice,” Williams said.

“Money doesn’t drive performance – you either have the talent or you don’t.”

Stroll handled the criticism in stride.

“I come from money, I’m not going to deny that,” he said. “But I believe I earned my shot in F1 because I won every championship that I’ve competed in.”

Part of the reason racing authorities introduced the Super Licence to F1 was to try to stamp out a rash of pay drivers who were finding their way into the sport. Now a driver must earn the ticket, though it’s nearly impossible to rise that high in the sport without having a strong financial backing.

The man who discovered Stroll at the age of 11 at a go-kart race in Florida, then recruited him to the Ferrari development program, says he is tired of hearing Stroll criticized because of his family’s wealth, since it detracts from the reality of how hard racing is to win.

Eric Jensen, a talent scout for the Ferrari Driver Academy, said money alone isn’t enough to excel in auto racing. There are several drivers who have equally as much money, but not the talent, or the proper development plan in place and never make it to F1, he said.

“The driver still has to be exceptional, even if he’s in the best car.” Jensen said.

“A lot of people have put Lance down and his father down, saying it’s just money. But the reality is, they just did things properly from the beginning. Lance followed a proper development program. He won the Formula 3 on merit.”

Lawrence Stroll bristles at the question, pointing out that it’s not him that drives.

“If it would have been anybody else whose name wasn’t Stroll who had done what he did, I think every sports announcer or fan would say, ‘Oh my god this great sensation just dominated and won Formula 3,’” Lawrence said.

“So what is the difference of what my wealth is versus his performance? I just chalk it up to a lot of very jealous, envious people.”

Last year, Stroll jumped ship from Ferrari to Williams, where he signed on as a development driver, after Williams was prepared to offer him a shot at F1 sooner.

As he prepares to race in the highest level of his sport, Stroll knows the only way he’ll be able to silence his critics is to deliver on the track.

Sitting in the kitchen of a country home the Strolls have purchased near the Williams headquarters about a half hour outside Oxford, Lance outlines the jump he’s about to make and what he needs to do in the next five months to get ready for it.

It begins with a quick trip back to Montreal for a short vacation, the first he’s taken in a while, then he’ll be hitting the gym with his trainer to begin preparing for the physical rigours of the F1 season. At an hour and a half, the races are about twice as long as those in F3. When fatigue sets in, the legs, arms and neck take the brunt of it.

“Physically it’s going to be a lot more demanding,” he said.

He also needs to hone his mental abilities – since F1 requires the driver and pit crew to be constantly assessing fuel use and tire wear, strategy is crucial.

“All those things have to be in the back of your mind at all times. So that’s a much different approach to racing than what I’m used to,” Stroll said.

Despite having just celebrated his 18th birthday last week, Stroll figures he is making the jump to F1 as a more mature driver than he was when he rose to the F3 ranks. His first season in F3 was marked by notable stumbles, including a botched move that flipped his car and a one-race penalty the following weekend for causing an accident. Both incidents led to Stroll being chided by other drivers for his inexperience.

“It was probably the worst possible point of my career,” he said. “No one thought anything of me, and no one believed in me at that point, and they all thought I was just here for all the wrong reasons. It was a hard, hard time.”

Stroll says he was doing too much in order to win. But after that rough stretch, he says he adjusted his attitude from a kid who thought he knew everything to one who now listens entirely to the people around him. The results were almost immediate. Stroll wan his first race later that season, setting him up for the dominant performance he had on the way to this season’s championship.

“I had people put my feet on the ground for me and say, ‘No you don’t know everything and you need to learn this and this and this,’ and it took me time to realize that. But I think kind of the end of last year, I sort of started to realize that, yeah, I have a lot of room for improvement,” he said.

“I hit rock bottom and because I hit rock bottom, I just started going up from there. And that was really the big turnaround.”

Knowing how difficult the jump to F3 was, Stroll is careful not to set too many goals for his first season in F1.

“I don’t want to think results, I don’t want to think positions. I just want to come in, do my job and we’ll see where we end up. I think that’s the best way to look at it, because then you start focusing on the outcome rather than focusing on the work that it takes to get to that outcome.”

Stroll’s path to F1 will lead to the grid in Montreal next summer and the arrival of the first Canadian F1 driver since Villeneuve couldn’t come at a better time for the organizers of that event. When F1 issued its schedule for the 2017 season, the Canadian Grand Prix was listed conspicuously with an asterisk next to it, meaning it wasn’t a sure thing to happen. With Montreal’s contract coming up for renewal, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had been pushing for upgrades to the venue, but the city was reluctant to contribute.

François Dumontier, president of the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada, said he figures a deal between the sides will be in place soon. The arrival of Stroll on the scene is “a gift,” he said.

“When you look at the history of the Grand Prix, you had Gilles [Villeneuve] in ’78, you had Jacques in ’96, and now you’ve got Lance,” Dumontier said.

Stroll’s jump to F1 will see him move from F3 cars, which reach speeds of 270 kilometres an hour, to F1 cars, which top 360 km/hr. Stroll has been training in an older 2014 Williams car to get used to the feel of an F1 engine. However, because of racing rules, he’ll only be allowed four days to train in the car he will compete in before the season begins.

It’s a lot to handle, but the transition will be aided by his teammate, Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas who, at 27, is now the greybeard on the Williams team.

“Obviously there are plenty of things to learn when you jump from any category to F1. First of all there are many, many more people on the team, there’s so much more you can unlock technically from the car,” Bottas said. “So I’m definitely going to help in all the ways I can. He’s got plenty of talent, I’m sure he will do fine.”

Bottas could be pressed into service earlier than expected. For now, Stroll can drive as fast as he wants on a track, but he must stay off the roads until he gets a licence.

Until that changes, Stroll joked, “Valtteri will have to drive me to the races.”

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