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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 ...

Desperate for a Formula One title, and not expecting Hamilton to contend any time soon, McLaren went out and paid top-dollar to steal 2006 F1 champion Fernando Alonso away from the Renault team. At more than $30-million a year, it was one more blockbuster deal in pro racing’s history of audacious spending.

What no one expected was that Hamilton, a rookie breaking into F1 in his early 20s, would almost immediately challenge for racing supremacy, and ultimately win the 2008 championship at 23. That same year, Alonso came fifth.

Other teams took notice of the math: McLaren was paying Alonso more than $30-million a year. Hamilton cost a measly $560,000.

This breakthrough lit a spark at Ferrari. Building a driver from scratch wasn’t merely doable – as Enzo Ferrari once mused – it was ingenious.

“With the cheques that we write Fernando or Michael [Schumacher] we can build 20 drivers,” Baldisserri says, his eyes lighting up.

Racing isn’t the first sport to venture deep into the youth ranks for undiscovered talent.

Soccer has long taken this approach to controversial extremes. Spanish club Real Madrid made headlines this year when it signed a 7-year-old from Argentina to its development squad. Dutch team VVV-Venlo pushed the boundaries further, signing an 18-month-old toddler to a symbolic 10-year contract after watching him kick a ball on YouTube.

But soccer’s roulette-style search for talent isn’t always taken seriously. Though some stars have emerged, fans generally brush off such contracts for what they are – mostly stunts.

Racing’s move into the world of child prodigies is far more serious and cost-intensive. McLaren spent an estimated $5-million on Hamilton’s development over 10 years, and Ferrari is also investing considerably in Lance.

The team has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a high-tech simulator for karts. By the time Lance is old enough to pilot a regular car, he will have logged thousands of hours behind the wheel. “With the simulator, you can eliminate all variables – traffic, tires, conditions – and concentrate only on pure driving, on your driving line, your style” Baldisserri says.

When Ferrari sought out Lance, it was looking for someone with the basic building blocks of racing: the ability to make lightning-quick decisions, assertiveness, patience and calmness under pressure. Psychological tests helped determine the best candidates.

The signs of a good driver are visible during a race – fighting off an opponent in the corners, consistent lap times, and the judgment to know when to pass and when not to take the gamble.

Yet the dangers of the sport are inescapable, something Lance’s parents think about often. As much as Lawrence Stroll is a fan of auto racing, he worries deeply about his son’s safety.

“Like any parent, the first time I saw him go, I thought ‘Are we all crazy here?’ ” he says. “I was just very scared that he would get hurt.”

Virtually every sport has risks – concussions for hockey and football players, for example – but none are as perilous as auto racing. There have been 45 fatalities in the 61-year history of Formula One. And though safety reforms have reduced accidents considerably in the past 20 years, auto racing remains one of the most dangerous ways to earn a living in pro sports.

A cold reminder of that reality came in October, with the death of British racer Dan Wheldon on the IndyCar circuit in Las Vegas.

For Stroll, allowing Lance to race is a daily battle between the protective parent and the one that wants to encourage his son’s ambitions. “You watch him and you watch him, and you begin to find a comfort level over time,” he says. “[The worry]is never gone, but you just learn to live with that.”

The gear worn by drivers speaks volumes. Lance’s blood type is stitched across the waistband of his fire-proof racing suit, just in case. In addition to his helmet, he also dons a heavily padded vest to protect his ribs, and heat-resistant gloves.

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