The last time there was a Canadian-born driver in Formula One, the most glamorous of auto-racing’s professional circuits, Lance Stroll was eight years old.
This week, having just celebrated his 18th birthday on Saturday, the Montreal-born Stroll, long hailed as a racing prodigy, looks poised to end that drought.
Britain-based Williams Racing is expected to unveil its lineup for the coming F1 season on Thursday during an event at the team’s factory 90 minutes outside London. When the roster is revealed, one of the two available seats will no doubt go to Finland’s Valtteri Bottas, who has driven for Williams since 2013.
The second seat, vacated by the retirement of Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, is widely believed to be going to Stroll.
The move would make Stroll the second-youngest driver in F1 history – Belgium-born rival Max Verstappen, who rewrote the record books at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, competed for Red Bull Racing when he was still six months shy of turning 18.
Stroll and Verstappen are part of a youth movement that has swept through the sport since the turn of the century, as superstars such as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso rose to the highest echelons of auto racing while still in their early 20s.
Stroll represents the next iteration of that phenomenon – an even younger crop of drivers who have been groomed from a young age in sophisticated development programs, with an eye to turning them into champions down the road.
Stroll began to raise eyebrows in 2010, when Ferrari, a legend in the sport, signed him to its development team at the age of 11, after scouts watched him dominate the North American go-karting ranks.
It helped immensely that Stroll’s billionaire father, Lawrence, who made his fortune bankrolling designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, had the financial might to fund Stroll’s development. Formula 1 requires millions in seed money just to bring along a driver, even before signing on with a team. At the F1 level, most drivers are then expected to bring millions of their own money to the table as a prerequisite for competition.
But when Ferrari signed Stroll, the team was executing some crude math: Luring a champion away from another paddock could cost upwards of $30-million. Developing young talent from scratch costs a fraction of that.
However, late last year, with Stroll driving in F3 – one rung below the top circuit – he jumped ship to Williams, which appeared willing to offer him a faster route into F1. The move also came clouded in speculation that his father was seeking to put money into the team, and possibly take an ownership stake.
The impact of money in the sport is not lost on young Stroll.
“It’s a bit ridiculous that a sport should be the way F1 is, where you should have to put in so much money to get to the top. I think it should be the opposite,” he said this summer during a press conference held in his hometown during the Montreal Grand Prix.
“You need to put in a certain amount like any sport – if you play tennis you need to buy a racket – but to pay to drive for a team, that’s wrong,” he said, adding: “It’s also the world we live in.”
Since Stroll first emerged on the racing scene as a gangly kid, the question looming over him was whether he could deliver on the track, particularly as he graduated from go-karts to bigger, faster race cars.
His debut in F3 last year was a bumpy one – he was criticized by other drivers for questionable moves on the track that resulted in a one-race ban for causing an accident. Stroll eventually grew more comfortable, winning his first F3 race last October, then proceeded to dominate the circuit in 2016, winning 14 of 30 F3 races, and making the podium two-thirds of the time.
One of the perks of winning the F3 championship is that it comes with a licence to compete in F1, provided the driver can land a team.
Stroll’s father confirmed to The Globe recently that his son will be making the jump to F1 next year. But he said he wasn’t in a position to say which team it would be with.
The last time a Canadian drove on an F1 track was in 2006, with Jacques Villeneuve. Ontario-born Robert Wickens came close five years ago, serving as a reserve and test driver, but lacked the funding to secure a spot. There is a possibility that 21-year-old Torontonian Nicholas Latifi, a test driver for Renault, might soon graduate to F1.
Stroll’s march toward F1 has long been forecast by racing insiders. In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2011, British racing legend Mike Wilson, who scouted Stroll and agreed to coach him, called him an unusual talent.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids – fast kids,” Wilson said at the time. “He’s got that killing instinct. It’s something that’s born inside of you.”
With a file from Sean GordonReport Typo/Error
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