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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 ...

A few years later, as soon as the rules allowed, Lance was racing competitively in Quebec. And by 9, he was dominating the North American circuit against much older kids, winning more than 70 per cent of the events he entered – a freakishly high percentage in a sport where victories are scuttled by something as arbitrary as a blown gasket.

As Lance won races, it was common for rivals to suspect he had an advantage. And he did. Success in racing takes money – lots of it, since the karts cost $7,000 (U.S.) or more and practice time is expensive. But his father is a wealthy man, having made millions in the textiles business. He also collects Ferraris, and his family owns a Montreal dealership that sells them.

Despite those ties to Ferrari, though, Stroll says he was suspicious when his son was approached in 2010, after a race in Florida by a man with a strange-sounding offer. How would Lance like to come race for Ferrari, the most storied name in racing? Scouts had been watching as he racked up victories across North America, and they liked what they saw.

Stroll didn’t believe it. This man was a con artist, a fraud. He was incensed.

“I told him, you’re full of [expletive] this isn’t true,” the father recalls. It took a phone call from Italy later that afternoon to change his mind.

After scouring racing’s junior ranks in Europe and North America, the Ferrari Driver Academy had settled on two or three boys it thought it could mould, and Lance was its first pick.

The Ferrari Driver Academy? Stroll had never heard of it. But then, Ferrari hadn’t said very much publicly about its new program at that point.

Though Lance was eager to accept, his parents were reluctant. He was still a boy, and this was a major commitment. “I wanted Lance to digest it,” Stroll says. “With the time and money Ferrari is spending, you’ve really got to know you want to do this.”

But Ferrari wasn’t the only one interested. Within days, Ferrari’s bitter F1 rival, McLaren, heard what transpired in Florida and lobbed in a competing offer. After mulling his options, Lance chose Ferrari, and a few months later, boarded a plane for his first training session at the academy.

Despite murmurs in Canadian racing circles – mostly from Lance’s competitors – that Stroll’s money and connections paved Lance’s way into Ferrari, the man who runs the academy bristles at this suggestion.

Seated in a cluttered office at Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy, Baldisserri speaks bluntly on the subject: Ferrari does not sell spots on its roster, he says.

The team is bankrolling the entire project. Win or lose, it is Ferrari’s wager.

BUILDING A RACE-CAR DRIVER

Ferrari has long dreamed of engineering the perfect race-car driver.

The idea first struck the racing team’s founder, Enzo Ferrari, in the summer of 1977, when he got to thinking that with enough ingenuity, he and the expert minds at his company could revolutionize auto racing by extending Ferrari’s prowess beyond the car to the person behind the wheel.

“I like thinking Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars,” Enzo once said, after setting eyes on an aspiring driver from Canada – a scrappy, tousle-haired daredevil named Gilles Villeneuve.

At 26, Villeneuve was skilled but still rough around the edges for Formula One, which is the most technically demanding of all professional racing disciplines, requiring a constant mixture of violent braking, acceleration, hairpin cornering and rapid gear shifting.

Villeneuve grew up racing snowmobiles near Chambly, Que., and showed an uncanny knack for winning when he jumped into cars. Standing just 5 foot 2, he was dubbed il piccolo Canadese – the little Canadian – by Enzo Ferrari after joining the team.

Villeneuve rocketed to stardom under Ferrari, winning six F1 races and reaching iconic status, especially in his home province. But it all came to a gut-wrenching halt at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, when Villeneuve died after being thrown from his car in a horrific collision. Considered one of the purest talents F1 has seen, Villeneuve’s death haunts the Ferrari team to this day.

Enzo Ferrari’s dream of building the perfect driver was deferred, and over the years the team found other ways to win – mainly by spending gobs of money. In 1996, Ferrari paid a record $25-million a year to lure reigning champion Michael Schumacher to its team, and was rewarded with five successive F1 titles between 2000 and 2004.

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