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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.

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.

But since Schumacher’s reign ended, the balance of power has shifted dramatically within the sport, and Ferrari has been losing ground to more cunning rivals. Two years ago, the Italians went back to the drawing board.

In 2009, Ferrari created its driver academy after realizing it needed to get better at developing talent from within. The original plan was to work with young men – 17- or 18-year-olds. It wasn’t until Ferrari found Lance that the blueprint changed.

Lance’s training program at Ferrari is an F1 regimen modified for a boy. The team of coaches and technicians watching over him includes gymnastics experts recruited specifically for this project.

“They are specialized in dealing with children,” Baldisserri says. “They know how to build co-ordination first, then the muscle.”

On a typical training day, Lance balances on an exercise ball inside a gymnasium at Ferrari and closes his eyes. A trainer hands him a steering wheel and tells him to concentrate. Holding his arms straight out in front of his body, Lance is instructed to visualize the courses he will race on in Europe, and to steer himself through the imaginary turns. Apart from the steering motion, he must remain perfectly still. It is an exercise to build balance, stamina and focus.

Later, he will visit a nutritionist before heading to a classroom session on racing strategy, and then to the “Mind Room,” where Ferrari teaches its drivers to stay calm under pressure. Computer programs help build Lance’s reflexes and hone his use of peripheral vision, while another machine quietly tracks his brain activity, breathing patterns and blood pressure.

During a race, the average F1 driver is subjected to extreme conditions, including force five times that of gravity. On a tight corner, or a long straightaway, that’s enough to temporarily arrest a driver’s breathing and make his head feel like a 50-pound weight. Sweating from the heat of a car straining to hit 350 km/h, a driver will lose up to three litres of fluid during a race, and his blood pressure jumps by half.

At Lance’s age, racing takes a similar toll. Fatigue slows reaction times, making wheel movements sloppy.

“After a lot of laps you start to get dizzy,” he says, in a voice that has not yet cracked. “Balance is really important for driving, so your head doesn’t go like this” – he tilts his head as if asleep – “when you get tired. So you have to always stay strong. We work on that a lot.”

Ferrari is starting Lance out slow. He won’t get in an actual race car until he is at least 15, and his workouts, for now, are limited to low-impact cardio and balance drills.

“I’m too young for weights,” he says with a shrug.

More than three decades after Gilles Villeneuve arrived in Italy, Lance Stroll is the new piccolo Canadese inside Ferrari.

NEW ECONOMICS OF RACING

The groundwork for the Lance Stroll experiment was laid in 1995, at a posh hotel in London.

That year, McLaren boss Ron Dennis was handing out trophies at an awards gala when a particularly brave 10-year-old informed one of racing’s most intimidating figures that he would some day race for him. The boy’s name: Lewis Hamilton.

Dennis laughed and told the boy to call him in about nine years. But after watching Hamilton clean out the karting ranks for the next three years, Dennis made a crazy bet in 1998, signing Hamilton to McLaren at 13. Jaws dropped across the racing world and controversy ensued.

It was an unprecedented move, and few people gave it much credence. But Hamilton began winning at every rung of amateur racing. Soon, he was knocking on the door of Formula One as an entirely new breed of driver – weaned on the go-kart circuit and bred by McLaren with an F1 ethic. With access to high-tech racing simulators and coaching that only professionals were previously afforded, Hamilton developed more rapidly than any driver who had come before.

Then, in 2007, everything changed.

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.

Lance will be introduced to faster speeds and more imposing cars gradually. Ferrari is in no rush until he has an expert grasp of the road. One wrong move and he could end up in the wall.

“It’s good for him to do his mistakes now,” Baldisserri says. “Because mistakes when you are older, you will pay for them 10 times. He needs to understand that, because otherwise it can be dangerous.”

Baldisserri admits Ferrari officials have asked themselves if Lance was too young for the academy. “Yes, definitely,” he says. “But it’s something that at the moment he is responding to very well.”

SKILL, MONEY, LUCK

A sport that used to regard a 28-year-old driver as young may soon consider him over the hill.

Since Hamilton burst upon the scene, pro racing has been in the throes of a youth movement. Kids are getting better, sooner.

Hamilton was two months shy of his 24th birthday when he became the youngest driver to win the F1 championship in 2008. Sebastian Vettel bettered that mark last year, taking the title at 23 years 5 months.

But the youth revolution is not limited to the twisting tracks of Formula One, the oldest, fastest and most global of the three pro auto racing circuits.

In NASCAR, the stockcar circuit that dominates the attention of U.S. audiences, driver Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 this year, just one day after turning 20.

IndyCar, the predominantly North American oval circuit, is also seeing a surge of young drivers, including James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., who won rookie of the year this season, at 24.

Spotting talent at a young age is not easy. Some say it’s impossible. There are many factors that can scrap a racing career.

Drivers are usually 18 before Ferrari can tell if they are ready for F1 consideration, and it helps if they are piccolo. If Lance, who stands 4 foot 9, adds too much height or weight in his teen years, it will be difficult to squeeze into the cockpit of an F1 car, which is designed for aerodynamics, not leg room.

This issue has thwarted racing careers before: In 2005, Austrian driver Alexander Wurz lost his spot as McLaren’s backup driver when the team’s engineers designed a faster car that didn’t accommodate his 6-foot-1 frame. Wurz was replaced by 5-foot-8 Pedro de la Rosa of Spain.

Some aspects of Lance’s development are even harder to predict. Competitors who are fearless on the track at a young age may grow tentative when they graduate to faster cars. Hesitation may only add seconds to a lap time – but that’s enough to reduce a driver from great to just average.

Lance admits he sometimes gets nervous before competitions, but it’s the anticipation of the race that does it, not the speed. “Nervous can be good,” he says, repeating what his coaches and sports psychologists tell him about the rush of adrenaline that hits before a race. “It means I’m ready to go.”

Lance has a team built around him that extends well beyond Ferrari. Stroll has brought aboard Montreal sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell, who worked with NHL star Sidney Crosby as a boy. “He reminds me a lot of Crosby at that age,” Halliwell says of Lance’s intense focus.

For added coaching support, Stroll also contacted Mike Wilson, a British racing legend who competed as a teenager against the late Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian who many consider was the best F1 driver in history. Wilson figures he gets 100 calls a year from parents around the world who want him to coach their child.

When Stroll called, Wilson turned him down.

Stroll persisted and offered to fly Wilson to Montreal to watch Lance race. “I said to my wife, ‘Listen, I’ve got this Canadian kid I’m going to watch him,’ ” Wilson recalls. “ ‘I’ll be back in a week and that will be the end of it.’ ”

But after watching Lance turn a few laps in Montreal, Wilson signed on to the project long-term.

Like Ferrari, Wilson is putting his venerable name on the line with Lance. But if anyone knows the razor-thin margin between becoming an F1 driver and fading into the background of the sport, it’s him. Wilson had the chops to race at the highest level, but he lacked the means. Formula One requires money and timing, and he had neither. With a baby on the way when he was in his early-20s, Wilson abandoned his dreams and opted for paying gigs, and the F1 window closed.

Though Canada has produced more than its share of talented drivers, money counts as much as ability. At 22, Toronto-born Robert Wickens is considered good enough for the F1 circuit. But unless he can crack a top team like Ferrari or McLaren, Wickens will need to bring sponsorship dollars to the table – cash that is akin to buying your way onto the grid.

It’s an unforgiving reality of the sport. With only 12 teams in today’s Formula One circuit, and two cars for each, there are 24 spots on race day. And even with money and talent, getting there takes one additional element that no driver can control.

“Luck,” says Wilson, jamming his hands into his jean pockets as he watches Lance spin around the track at the Circuito. To make it, every driver needs skill, money “and a lot of luck.”

‘A BULL’S-EYE ON MY BACK’

Before Lance goes to bed each night, he opens up a small coil notebook and scribbles a few paragraphs about his day at the track.

This is his training journal, which Halliwell has asked him to keep just as Crosby did nearly a decade ago, when he was a hockey prodigy with a world of pressure bearing down on him.

The handwriting is that of a child, but the language is a race car driver’s. “Yesterday was a good day,” Lance writes. “We easily have a good three-tenths of a second in the chassis and that will make us top three.”

Turning through the pages, one phrase in particular begins to stand out in the diary. Lance jots it down many times: “I know I am fast. I know I am fast. …”

This is a confidence exercise. Before each race, Lance flips down the visor on his helmet, closes his eyes, and repeats to himself. “I know I am fast.”

They are reassuring words, especially as Lance finds himself at the centre of a gathering storm. Ferrari’s decision to sign a boy – a Canadian boy at that – does not sit well with many European competitors.

Not long after Ferrari’s announcement went around the world, Lance began to notice something different during his races. First, he shrugged it off. Then, it was undeniable. It was as though the other kids were trying to run him off the track. Was it because of the Ferrari deal?

“It couldn’t have helped,” Lance says with a shrug. “But I can’t do anything about it. I’m not going to not accept the offer” just to make other people happy.

With the eyes of the racing world upon him, Lance is now trying to keep a low profile. When Ferrari welcomed Lance to its team, Baldisserri presented him with the rarest of gifts: a bright red Ferrari racing suit, just like the one Villeneuve wore. It is the most famous uniform in racing.

But Lance told Ferrari it’s probably better if he doesn’t wear it. “It’s like having a bull’s-eye on my back,” he explains. “The other kids are going to be saying: ‘He’s a Ferrari driver – go and get him.’ ”

Baldisserri agreed. Everyone is chasing Lance Stroll.

So on race day, the famous red suit stays at home and he zips himself into an anonymous blue-and-white uniform. Only a small yellow sticker on his helmet – the prancing horse logo of Ferrari – signals his potential as a Formula One driver.

On the track, the logo is hard to spot. At 127 km/h, this tiny symbol of a sport in transition is little more than a blur.

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