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Kart driver Lance Stroll of Canada is pictured during a training session at the South Garda Karting circuit in Lonato, northern Italy December 15, 2011. Photo: Alessandro Garofalo (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO)
Kart driver Lance Stroll of Canada is pictured during a training session at the South Garda Karting circuit in Lonato, northern Italy December 15, 2011. Photo: Alessandro Garofalo (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO)

Grant Robertson

The grooming of Canada's next Formula One driver Add to ...

The speedometer hits 120 kilometres an hour before Lance Stroll starts to find his rhythm. This is his first time driving the Circuito Internazionale Napoli, but he is making it look easy – like he’s been doing this for decades.

Today is a closed practice, accessible only to Stroll and his small team of coaches and hand-picked advisers. But had this famous racetrack in southern Italy sold tickets, auto racing aficionados would have probably filled the bleachers – just for a chance to glimpse Stroll with their own eyes. To see what all the fuss is about.

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His first lap clocks in at 1 minute 20 seconds. Not bad for a rookie. Then, successive laps begin to tell the tale of this aspiring Formula One driver from Canada who has caused ripples throughout the auto racing world. He cuts through the course in 1:16 and begins to shave a second or two off each lap: 1:14, 1:12, 1:11, 1:10, 1:09.

By the time he pulls back into the paddock to have his tire pressure checked, Stroll is within reach of a track record.

He takes off his helmet, brushes his dark hair to one side, and stares intently at a small computer that has been tracking his every move. His top speed blinks across the screen: 127 km/h.

He is quiet for a few seconds. It’s not the 130 he wanted.

“We’ll save that for the race,” Stroll says, dripping with sweat and disappointment.

It’s still pretty fast for a kid who turned 13 in October.

Back home in Montreal, it’s a school day for his friends, but Lance has come to Italy to begin one of the most audacious experiments auto racing has ever seen.

Ferrari, that engineer of perfect cars, now wants to engineer the perfect driver.

The project was unveiled in June of 2010, when Ferrari, cherished in Italy for its racing prowess and renowned worldwide for its high-end sports cars, announced that Lance, a standout on the North American go-kart circuit, was to become the youngest person signed to a Formula One team, at 11.

The move raised eyebrows across the sporting world: a boy who was then five years away from a driver’s licence would be groomed into an F1 driver, one of the most challenging jobs in professional sports. Not to mention one of the most dangerous.

It had all the earmarks of a publicity stunt. But Ferrari wasn’t joking. Its experiment with Lance will test the limits of how talent is developed in professional auto racing, and how much it costs to build a winner.

At a time when F1 is struggling with soaring costs and waning TV ratings, forcing the sport to seek out new markets in Asia and the Middle East to revitalize itself, Ferrari is undertaking a strategic overhaul of its own.

It is a blueprint that will require at least eight years to complete. And if all goes according to design, it could change auto racing’s oldest team forever.

Even Ferrari acknowledges it is a gamble.

“A project like this was never part of the culture of Ferrari,” says Luca Baldisserri, head of the Ferrari Driver Academy, where Lance is training. “He is very young. We know that. It’s a big jump in the dark, to be honest.”

At the centre of it all is Lance, an unassuming boy with a wide grin, unflappable concentration and a preternatural gift for speed.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids – fast kids,” says British racing coach Mike Wilson, who has mentored numerous F1 drivers. “He’s got that killing instinct. It’s something that’s born inside of you.”

HUNTING FOR A PROTÉGÉ

Ferrari never thought its search for a driver would lead to Canada. It seemed only logical the best talent would be found in one of the many racing-mad countries in Europe.

But Lance is an anomaly. He began driving at 5, after his father bought him a miniature go-kart as a gift. Like most parents who steer their children toward sports they love, Lawrence Stroll is a car buff and Formula One fanatic. But he never gave the karting idea much thought. It was just something Lance could do for fun.

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