It is rare to realize a life’s dream at an early age, but you could see it coming for Formula One racing rookie Lance Stroll.
The 18-year-old, who was named as a driver for the Williams F1 team in November, will make his debut in motor racing’s top series this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix.
He will be the second-youngest to race in F1 after Max Verstappen, who began at 17 for Toro Rosso in 2015 before being promoted to the Red Bull team and winning the Spanish Grand Prix last summer.
Stroll landed the Williams ride after he became the youngest champion of the European Formula 3 series last year, winning 14 of 30 races.
“I’ve progressed a lot and I think I’ve reached a level of driving that I was aiming for,” Stroll said after winning the title. “But there is still a lot to learn because you always need to adapt to a higher level.”
Of course, he also had the benefit of financial help from his billionaire father Lawrence Stroll, a diehard racing and Ferrari fan who has not hesitated to dip into his vast resources to help his son reach his goals.
Some reports estimated that Lawrence Stroll, who made his fortune in the fashion industry, spent at least US$40 million to get his son a seat in F1.
Lance Stroll acknowledges that the money helped, but he still had to prove himself on the track.
“For sure it’s important to have sponsorships in F1 because, as we’ve seen, there have been good drivers who didn’t make it because they didn’t have solid backing,” Stroll said in a recent interview. “It shouldn’t be like that but it is, so it’s good to have support.”
Money can’t buy talent, but that’s not a problem for Stroll.
Vince Loughran, who runs the Mont-Tremblant track north of Montreal owned by Stroll’s father, said the young driver was impressive from the outset. And Loughran, who has worked in motor racing for more than 42 years, has seen youngsters make it to F1 before.
“I worked at Mont-Tremblant when Gilles Villeneuve came to take (race) driving lessons in 1973,” he said of the former Ferrari ace who died in a crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. “I also saw Gilles’ brother Jacques and his son Jacques Villeneuve (the 1997 F1 champion for Williams) take lessons here.
“Now, it’s Lance’s turn.”
Stroll’s racing education was later taken on by Hugo Mousseau, who met him in 2008 when he was an instructor at SH Karting in Mont St. Hilaire, Que. He said Stroll was shy at first, but soon broke out of his shell and became an eager student.
“He learned not to blame others for his setbacks and that’s what allowed him to progress so quickly,” said Mousseau. “He understood early on that it takes hours of work to get results.
“It’s a little like (Montreal Canadiens goaltender) Carey Price. He can’t rely only on his talent. He has to keep working to improve. He’s also very intelligent in that he understands what he needs to do and that he needs to share information with the right people, like his race engineer.”
At 12, there were more lessons at the Jim Russell driving school. Even though instructors had to add wooden blocks to the pedals so he could reach them, Stroll managed to keep pace with students two or three years older.
The big move came in 2010 when his family relocated to Geneva, joined the Ferrari Academy and began Kart racing across Europe.
He graduated to single seaters in 2014 and took part in the Italian F4 series with Prema PowerTeam. Then came F3, where he developed a reputation as a quick and aggressive driver. He also left Ferrari to join the Williams development team.
The British squad then decided to give him a shot at Formula One.
When Valtteri Bottas moved to the powerhouse Mercedes AMG squad in January, veteran Felipe Massa came out of a brief retirement to join Williams and team with Stroll.
Stroll said he won’t label Massa as his “big brother” but will try to learn as much as possible from the 35-year-old Brazilian.
“He’s not my mentor,” said Stroll. “I know I already said that in an interview, but maybe people didn’t understand.
“He’s not here to take care of me but, that said, he has a lot of experience and he’s a driver I can watch and listen to during briefings and learn new things from. And one thing I like is that he said we’re working for the team and that it shouldn’t be a war between us, but that the competition between us is good for the team and will help push us to perform better.
“So it’s great to have Felipe on the team. He’s fast, he’s happy to be here and he’s motivated.”
Alexandre Geoffrion-McInnis, The Canadian Press