The story goes that when he was 10, Lewis Hamilton walked up to McLaren owner Ron Dennis and said he wanted to drive race cars for him. The rest — a world championship later — is history.
This year at the Canadian Grand Prix, I participated in a variation of that theme. When I was introduced to 12-year-old Gianfranco Mazzaferro, I shook his hand and said, “Hi, I hear you’re going to be world champion one day.”
And Gianfranco – or GF, as he’s known to family and friends – smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and replied that he was sure going to try.
The introduction that day in June was courtesy of Paul Cooke, vice-president of competition and director of karting for ASN Canada FIA, who’d been telling me about this young guy for some time. He’d call me up and he’d say, “We’ve got another one you’re going to like — Gianfranco Mazzaferro. Remember the name.”
And then Cooke, who’s also clerk of the course at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve (hence the introduction in the F1 paddock), would add: “A couple of years ago, I was trackside at an event and one young fellow in particular caught my eye. He was showing he had skills beyond his years. Back in the paddock, I found him and told him how impressed I’d been. He looked at me with a blank stare and said thanks.
“I short while later, he returned to shake my hand and to thank me very much for the compliment, saying that ‘I asked my dad who you are.’ That was how I came to know Gianfranco. Since then, he’s continued to develop. He’s a very deserving Eastern Canadian Karting (class) Champion and I look forward to watching him compete next weekend at the Canadian championships.”
That latter reference was to the 14th national runoffs that will be held at Le Circuit Karting Mont-Tremblant in the Quebec Laurentians Aug. 24-26. Sponsored by Canadian Tire and sanctioned by ASN Canada FIA, Canadian motorsport’s official sanctioning organization, the championships will attract more than 200 kart racers from across the country, ranging in age from 7 to 32 and older, competing in eight classes.
As well as the eight national championships that will be decided, the final four of the 12-driver Rotax Team Canada will be selected to compete at the world finals in Portimao, Portugal, beginning Nov. 21. Nearly 300 drivers from 60 countries will compete at what’s called the “Olympics of Kart Racing.”
But first things first and, for Gianfranco, that means the nationals at Mont-Tremblant.
“I feel pretty good” about racing on the kart track there, the young fellow told me this week when we had a chat on the phone. “I’ve raced there before (Cooke says the circuit is “billiard-table smooth”), so I know the track,” said Gianfranco, who estimates he’s raced at 20 or more tracks in Canada and the U.S. over the course of his career.
He got his first kart as a birthday present from his parents, Michael and Claudia, when he turned 6. He drove the kart on weekends with his cousins and his dad and decided several years later that racing was what he wanted to do.
“He’s very ambitious,” said his mother, who went on to say there are two other children in the family – brother Giordano, who’s 6 now, and sister Mikaela, 2 – although Gianfranco remains the only racer.
Will Giordano race? “We don’t know about him,” his mother said, explaining that her second son isn’t sure that he wants to do it and the family doesn’t want to push him. “But Mikaela is his (Gianfranco’s) biggest fan,” she laughed. “She loves to watch him.”
Gianfranco started serious racing at 9 when he joined Scuderia Karting of Montreal and in 2010 he was named Rookie and the Year in Micro Max. In 2011, he finished third in Coupe de Quebec competition and third at the Canadian nationals, this time in Mini Max.
So far, the 2012 season has seen Gianfranco travel to Florida for the third time to compete in the Winter Tour there (he recorded numerous top five finishes) and since he returned to Canadian competition in May he’s finished first in six of 11 Mini Max races, including five consecutive victories — two of which came at circuits in Ontario, Goodwood Kartways and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport).
In all, in a relatively short period of time, Gianfranco has made more than two dozen trips to the podium, something that older, more experienced racers can only dream about doing.
He works at it, though. Yes, he says it’s his dream to be a Formula One driver but he knows it’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to make it. To that end, he doesn’t play organized sports at school – “maybe some basketball” — because he doesn’t want to take the chance of being injured and, consequently, not be able to kart race on the weekends.
And even though he’s still a child, he exercises to stay in shape: “I do it with my mom and dad,” he laughed. When he’s not in a kart, he told me that he likes to go fishing and paintballing and he likes music.
Gianfranco will go into high school at West Island College in Montreal in the fall. He says he hasn’t given much thought to education beyond high school because he wants to concentrate on his racing.
“I have to become more consistent,” he said when I asked him what he had to do to improve, adding that he hopes to be good enough soon to go racing in Europe.
And who’s his favourite Formula One racer?
“Fernando Alonso,” he said, which is not a bad choice for an aspiring F1 racer. Alonso has won two world championships to date and seems to be on his way to a third.
Gianfranco Mazzaferro is a talented kid with a bright future in the sport. If he makes it to the top, I’ll be able to say that I knew him when — just like Ron Dennis.