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Profile: Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton

He is the only man in Formula One history to lead the championship in his inaugural season

By Brian Viner
Saturday, 26 May 2007

A month ago, British sport's embryonic superstar Lewis Hamilton gave his first major television interview, to Sir David Frost for his show Frost Over the World on al-Jazeera TV. Representing this newspaper, I was invited to sit in on the interview. The programme editor had assured me that I would get at least a few words with motor racing's 22-year-old phenomenon, but he had not reckoned on the admirable, if in that instance rather frustrating, protectiveness of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, the Formula One team for which Hamilton drives.

It rapidly became clear that no journalist would be allowed to aim so much as a cough in Hamilton's direction unless it had been agreed in triplicate back at McLaren HQ. There was even a flurry of panic when Frost said on air to the young man that in the next segment of the show they would welcome his father, Anthony, on to the sofa.

Hamilton looked happy enough at the prospect, but alongside me the McLaren PR woman reacted as though she'd been scalded. This hadn't been agreed; phone calls would have to be made. She was still on her mobile phone looking flustered when the alarmingly youthful-looking Anthony Hamilton was ushered into the studio, and proceeded to charm Frost just as Lewis had done. They are an exceptionally engaging double act, and of course Frost had done his homework; understanding the father is the key to understanding the son.

Anthony Hamilton, whose parents emigrated to Britain from Grenada in the 1950s, at one stage held down three jobs in an effort to fund Lewis in kart racing. Young men who become racing drivers invariably come from privileged backgrounds - Dan Wheldon, the British Indy Car racer who is favourite to win tomorrow's Indianapolis 500, is typical in having been privately educated - but there was no privilege in the Hamilton household on the mean streets of Stevenage, except for the privileges of love and talent.

His parents separated when he was two and he was brought up by his father and, later, his stepmother. At eight he began karting, and it was the financial struggle to indulge the boy's manifest ability behind the steering wheel that informed the way he was raised, giving him a keen perspective on life that was compounded by his half-brother's illness: 16-year-old Nicholas suffers from cerebral palsy, and Lewis calls him his greatest inspiration. The pair are nigh-on inseparable, and Nicholas is a regular at the track, even more popular with all the crews than Lewis. "I would also say that Nick probably knows more about F1 than I do," the editor of AutoSport magazine, Andrew Van De Burgt, told me yesterday.

As for the relationship between Lewis and Anthony, their easy-going mutual respect was plainly evident on the al-Jazeera sofa. "I think that honesty and trust played a big, big role in our relationship as Lewis was climbing up the ladder," his father has said. "I think we've always tried to bring Lewis up to do things right and to understand that positive consequences flow from taking an honest approach to things, whether we were talking about his kart racing or his school work. I told him that, if he had any doubts, then he shouldn't do it.But I was also confident that, if he took my advice and listened to what I was telling him, then a few years down the road it would all work out for him the way he wanted."

It has, and some. Hamilton will begin the Monaco Grand Prix tomorrow as the leader in this year's Formula One drivers' championship, with 30 points garnered from four podium finishes - a third place and three seconds - in four races. He is the youngest driver to lead the championship, beating a record established, aptly enough, by his team's founder Bruce McLaren, back in 1962. It perhaps augurs well that McLaren won the Monaco Grand Prix that year too.

The young Englishman now racing in the McLaren name is the only man in Formula One history to finish in the top three in his first four races, and the only man to lead the championship in his inaugural season, at any rate since the inaugural season of Formula One, in 1950. Whether he can build on his remarkable start by actually winning the thing, confounding all received wisdom, is now the question on everyone's lips. The former world champion Nikki Lauda, an unemotional Austrian and not a man given to hyperbole, thinks emphatically that he can.

"To be honest, Lewis has rather stunned me," Lauda said this week. "He has shown himself to be incredibly mature and strong-minded, and he genuinely has the chance to win the world championship at the first attempt, assuming of course he can develop the necessary understanding and close relationship with his engineers when it comes to interpreting precisely what he wants from the car. If his learning curve continues to climb as it has been doing over the first four races and if the team is capable of improving its car's performance to create an advantage over Ferrari, the title battle will be fought out between Lewis and Alonso."

Lauda was referring to the Spaniard Fernando Alonso, the senior McLaren driver and world champion for the past two years, who, while taking pride in his team-mate's efforts, must currently be slightly shell-shocked to find himself lagging two points behind in pursuit of the crown. That the pair lie first and second in the championship demonstrates not only their formidable driving skills but also the strength of the McLaren car: motor racing is a sometimes uneasy alliance between technological and human prowess, and old-timers such as Sir Stirling Moss believe that the proliferation of levers, buttons and knobs has diminished the role of the driver. Nevertheless, Moss is one of many observers to acknowledge Hamilton's precocious brilliance: he has lightning reflexes, and he is nerveless. More specifically, he has an uncanny ability to control the car while braking, which he then translates into high-speed entry into the corners.

He is also, of course, black, and whereas the interest in the colour of his skin has happily receded as the interest in his sheer talent has grown, it is nonetheless an important factor in the story. There has never been a black driver in Formula One, just as, before the advent of Tiger Woods, there was never a black player in the upper echelons of golf. The comparison between them is an obvious one: as well as being a pioneer, Woods is handsome, eloquent and preternaturally gifted. Hamilton ticks all the same boxes, to use marketing-speak, which is apt, because he is a marketing man's dream. If anything, he is more likeable than Woods, who has shown flashes of petulance throughout his stellar career.

From Hamilton, thus far, there have been no such lapses. He has conducted himself with impeccable decorum at all times, even in the face of increasingly frenzied press interest. The most controversial thing he has said is that at some point he might consider moving from his native Hertfordshire to the tax haven of Monte Carlo to protect a fortune that is estimated to hit and probably exceed £50m.

This week, however, he is in Monte Carlo only to drive. And if he does chalk up his maiden victory it will be all the more remarkable in the wake of the 100mph crash he suffered in practice on Thursday. Despite his skill on the brakes, he lost control of the car coming off a 170mph straight into the first corner and hit a wall of tyres. His employer and mentor Ron Dennis, the boss of McLaren, was later keen to point out that the crash could have happened to anyone. "It was a mistake that all drivers of all standards make," he said. "I'd rather this in practice than in qualifying or the race. Monaco is a big challenge for everyone and I think he's got a few brownie points left."

Hamilton started acquiring brownie points with Dennis at the tender age of 11, when he introduced himself at the 1995 AutoSport Awards. "Unlike so many people, he looked me square in the face and informed me where he was going in his life," Dennis later recalled. "Without breaking eye contact, he told me how he was going to go about his career. It impressed the hell out of me."

Two years later, Dennis became the patron Hamilton needed, signing him up to the McLaren development programme and funding him through the junior formulas and Formula Three. His faith and financial investment now seem likely to be repaid many times over. McLaren's chief executive Martin Whitmarsh has said that Hamilton has the potential to become the greatest motor racing driver of all time, and while Whitmarsh has a clear vested interest in Hamilton's success - and it should also be remembered that Hamilton hasn't even won a race yet - not many people in Formula One have ventured dissent.

One of the very few notes of caution in Hamilton's inexorable rise came this week from the former team principal Eddie Jordan, who declared it unlikely that the youngster would win the championship this year. "I believe that the media ought to back off from heaping this expectation on him," Jordan said. "It's like expecting a two-week-old child to be walking immediately, rather than after 10 months. This sort of attention can be counterproductive and we seem to be expecting something supernatural from the kid."

Hamilton, Jordan added, needed to be "supremely arrogant" as well as merely gifted. "We haven't seen that yet but you need to have it and, if Lewis doesn't, it will be his downfall." These were doubtless wise words, but after his crash on Thursday, Hamilton showed just the touch of arrogance to which Jordan referred. Asked afterwards whether it would have any impact on his performance, he simply said that it would make him go even faster.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 7 January 1985, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Named after the Olympic gold medallist athlete Carl Lewis.

EDUCATION: John Henry Newman School.

KARTING CAREER: Bought his first go-kart aged six. Began competitive karting aged eight, progressing through the stages of Cadet (1995), Junior Yamaha (1997) Junior Intercontinental A (1998) Intercontinental A (1999), Formula A (2000) and Formula Super A (2001), becoming European Champion in 2000.

FORMULA ONE CAREER: British Formula Renault Winter Series 2001 (fifth), British Formula Renault 2001-3 (champion 2003), Formula 3 Euroseries 2004-5 (champion 2005), Grand Prix 2 Series (Champion). Formula One, 2007: 30 points, third in Australian GP, second in Spanish and Bahrain GPs.

HE SAYS: "I'm going to race for you one day. I'm going to race for McLaren." - to Ron Dennis, chief executive of McLaren, when aged 11

THEY SAY: "He's superhuman." Frank Williams founder of WilliamsF1 Formula One team

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