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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 October 2007, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
F1's new star - and it's not the champ
By Andrew Benson

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton's good looks only added to his wide appeal
He did not win the world title, in the most heart-breaking of fashions, but Lewis Hamilton has changed the face of Formula One this year. In fact, it is fair to say he has become it.

For a driver in his first year in the sport, that is an incredible feat. But then there seems to be nothing about the 22-year-old English phenomenon that is not incredible.

As the former world champion Damon Hill has said, no-one has ever seen a rookie like Hamilton. And if that sounds like hyperbole given the drivers who have come before Hamilton, it is not. It is a simple statement of fact.

First of all, there is the world championship. No driver in his first year had even come close before.

And although Hamilton did not win it, many will argue he deserved it more than anyone, even in a year when there were three worthy champions.

Part of that is obviously down to the fact that he has had the car to do it, but it is not just about the car.

The weird thing was when we got there there were all these celebrities - and yet I seemed to be the main attraction

Lewis Hamilton on attending a party with rap star P Diddy
There were two McLarens at each race this season, and the other one was being driven by Fernando Alonso, double world champion, the youngest champion ever, the man who unseated Michael Schumacher, and undoubtedly an all-time great.

Hamilton did not just beat Alonso; he got under his skin.

The battle between the two men was close - and it may even have been closer had the Spaniard been able to separate his emotions from his profession more effectively.

The reason he could not was that he was unable to cope with the fact that, more often than not, he was simply not as fast as the man in the other car.

No-one had been faster than Alonso before - and this guy was a rookie.

No wonder he found it hard to deal with. No wonder, as he sought to protect his position, he ended up in a dispute with his McLaren bosses that seems to have made his position at the team untenable.

That is as stark a demonstration of the level of Hamilton's talent as any.

And it is his ability that accounts for a lot of his appeal.

Lewis Hamilton is interviewed by the media
The media loved Hamilton - and he cleverly used them to his ends
He is fast, aggressive, confident, unfazed. People know the real deal when they see it - and Hamilton is definitely that. He has also demonstrated an almost boyish enthusiasm for driving a racing car on the limit.

But that is not the only reason Hamilton's appeal has transcended F1's traditional fan base.

He is young, cool, strikingly good-looking, and the first driver of Afro-Caribbean origin in a traditionally very conservative sporting environment.

These attributes have taken Hamilton himself - and by extension F1 - into unfamiliar territory.

Hamilton's potential to cut through F1's traditional demographic into new areas was apparent by early summer, by which time he was already leading the championship.

Before the British Grand Prix in July, he was playing golf when he got a call on his mobile phone inviting him to a party with the rap mogul P Diddy.

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"The weird thing was," Hamilton recalls, "when we got there there were all these celebrities - and yet I seemed to be the main attraction."

He has also become friends with the pop singer Beyonce, and another rap star, Pharrell Williams.

Despite his entry into the world of celebrity, Hamilton's appeal is that he is clearly not the son of privilege.

He grew up, as he puts it, "in a one-bedroomed flat in Hatfield [in Hertfordshire] and in a council flat in Stevenage".

His grandparents emigrated from Grenada. And while his father, Anthony, now runs a successful IT business, he started out as a humble British Rail employee, who took redundancy so he could spend more time helping his son's burgeoning career.

That career started, as do those of so many Grand Prix drivers, in karting, where Hamilton's incredible ability was spotted from a very early age.

Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in their McLarens
Alonso and Hamilton were closely matched as drivers
But ability only takes you so far in sport - you have to have the determination, ambition, application and confidence to maximise it.

Hamilton has those qualities in abundance, too.

In an incident that has already passed into sporting folklore, at the age of 10 he introduced himself at an awards ceremony to Ron Dennis, the boss of the McLaren team, and said he wanted to drive for him one day.

Impressed, Dennis kept an eye on this precocious little boy, and within two years had signed him up.

Dennis's decision has paid dividends for Hamilton.

He has had the best equipment on his way up the motor racing ladder, and providing it cost McLaren millions. But the deal was two-way. They would continue funding him only as long as he delivered - and he has never stopped.

In three years' time, he'll have his own place in Monaco and be on his fifth supermodel girlfriend, but they'll be distractions

David Coulthard
Red Bull Formula One driver
That tutelage by McLaren meant Hamilton arrived in F1, as Jackie Stewart pointed out, as the best prepared driver in history. And the legendary Scot was not just talking about in the cockpit.

Some of Hamilton's remarks this year about the way his life has changed make him appear like a wide-eyed ingénue, and there is something of the choirboy about his image.

Yet the reality is somewhat different. Hamilton is no angel.

On the track, he has been as ruthless as anyone. And off it, even at the age of 22, he has proved adept at navigating the murky political waters of a sport that Dennis famously described as "The Piranha Club".

Hamilton has been anything but an innocent in the unravelling of Alonso's public image. In fact, before his win in the Japanese Grand Prix, Hamilton seemed to be carrying out a carefully calculated campaign to totally discredit his team-mate's personality.

It seemed to work when Hamilton won masterfully in the rain at Fuji while Alonso crashed out, putting the new-boy on the brink of the world title.

Lewis Hamilton rues the mistake that put him out of the Chinese Grand Prix
Hamilton was not flawless, as this off in China proved
But it backfired when Hamilton himself made a crucial mistake a week later in China, to put Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen right back into the title picture.

As a result, it is already too late for Hamilton to maintain a squeaky-clean image, which is probably just as well.

F1 is, after all, a hard sport, full of hard men. Its demands tease out the extremes of all its participants' characters, and maintaining the impression of angelic innocence is impossible.

But Hamilton will have to think carefully about how he wants to be perceived before he continues making similar remarks - or he risks being tarred with the same brush he was using to paint Alonso.

Hamilton has also talked about his belief in God, saying: "I feel quite safe on the track. I know He's always looking after me."

And he has added: "I never think about being killed on the track at all. I don't have any fear out there."

I feel quite safe on the track. I know He's always looking after me

Lewis Hamilton discusses his faith
Remarks like this are unusual for a racing driver, most of whom are strongly aware of the risks of what they do, even if they like not to think about them too much.

And they make Hamilton sound like a cross between Ayrton Senna, whose religious beliefs were combined with a strong sense of his own mortality, and Gilles Villeneuve, the daredevil Ferrari driver, who used to say he "had no fear of a crash".

Villeneuve and Senna were both extremely brave and skilful, and their total commitment to their craft won them millions of fans. But they both died at the wheel of a Formula One car, and no-one wants the same fate to befall Hamilton.

It is not just an attitude that Hamilton shares with Villeneuve and Senna, though, for already it is clear his talent is from the same bracket. He is so good that already it is clear he is likely to dominate F1 for years to come.

Assuming a competitive car - and when you are as good as Hamilton, that sort of thing more or less takes care of itself - the only thing that could stop him is dealing with the trappings of fame.

Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton and Alonso had a difficult relationship this year
As David Coulthard puts it: "Three years from now, the penny will drop and he'll say: 'God, I didn't realise how easy it was in that first season.'

"By then, he'll have his own place in Monaco and be on his fifth supermodel girlfriend, but they'll be distractions. The key to his success will be how he reacts to those diversions and difficulties."

So far, though, Hamilton appears to be in control.

In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of him has been his coolness during a rookie season in which he has beaten the best driver in the world in equal cars at the same time as watching his team become embroiled in a spying scandal that threatened not only his title bid, but that team's very existence.

And if he can handle everything that has thrown at him, there seems little reason to believe he will not be able to handle everything else.

He might not have won the title - and for now that will be painful indeed. But there is little doubt that Lewis Hamilton will be Formula One world champion in the future.



SEE ALSO
Teams escape punishment over fuel
22 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton's maiden season
21 Oct 07 |  Motorsport
Raikkonen the playboy king
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Formula One hits new heights
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Raikkonen pips Hamilton to title
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Changing the face of Formula One
24 Nov 06 |  Formula One
Sky's the limit for Hamilton
10 Jun 07 |  Formula One
How Hamilton drove Alonso to the edge
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One


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