Sports development is lousy with hyperventilated cradle-robbings. When Real Madrid is signing a 7-year-old Argentine and we’re reading about the supposed top point guard prospect in the class of 2018, the rush to be first has gone to plaid. We’re not yet seeing jocks genetically engineered, but when that takes hold, you’ll be born behind. Until then, the major sports (as in, not just figure-skating) are stuck making huge bets on the messy zitfarm years of kids’ lives.
A Globe and Mail story this past week seems to be the first meaningful reporting to evaluate an expensive experiment by Ferrari, which in 2010 made 11-year-old Lance Stroll the youngest person ever signed to a Formula One team. A few years ago, Stroll’s millionaire Ferrari-dealer father plugged him into a go-kart, for kicks. Lance won so many races on the junior North American circuit that he caught the eye of Ferrari, which has come to the conclusion that training tweens is cheaper than signing stars.
Stroll just turned 13 (here’s his driver page, with video). Ferrari hadn’t intended to invest someone so young, but apparently didn’t want to see him become that 14-year-old who got away. He’s still too young for the Ferrari Driver Academy to put him into a real car — that will come when he’s 15, about the time most kids his age are studying for a learner’s permit — but he’s topping out near 80 mph on Italian kart tracks.
Apparently the kid is much more of an emotional rock than most of us are at 13, which is a good thing considering that rigorous F1 has killed 45 drivers in its 61-year history. Racers experience five Gs on the track as they try to reach speeds of 220 mph; their blood pressure will double and they might sweat out 100 ounces during a race. Grant Robertson reports that one of Stroll’s assigned exercises is to stand on a balance ball with his eyes closed and a steering wheel in his hands, imagining himself navigating European tracks. The kid’s too young to weight-train, but he’s working with computers to help him improve his reflexes and his peripheral vision. One concern: If he does eventually reach taller than 6-feet, he’ll ostensibly outgrow the cockpit. But the good news for now is that he’s all of 4-foot-9.
The whole project isn’t quite as bonkers as it sounds. Two recent F1 drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, won titles before their 24th birthdays. Hamilton, a brash driver even as a 10-year-old, was signed to McLaren Automotive at age 13. When Hamilton won the title in 2008, McLaren was paying the 23-year-old just $560,000 while it was also forklifting upwards of $30 million to its supposed star, Fernando Alonso, who came in fifth. The money quote in Robertson’s piece is from the head of the Ferrari Driver Academy, Luca Baldisserri: “With the checks that we write Fernando or Michael [Schumacher], we can build 20 drivers.” Gentlemen, start your toddlers.