From childhood dream to Formula One glory

Although Lewis Hamilton couldn’t wrap up the Formula One title in the Chinese Grand Prix last Sunday, he is still in a commanding position to make history as the circuit’s youngest champion.

That isn’t surprising. Since the Englishman was nine years old he has nurtured a dream of following in the steps of former champions Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost.

“I used to go to Dad’s at weekends,” said Hamilton, whose parents separated when he was two. “A neighbour had a remote-control car.
I used to play with that. Dad was impressed so he bought me one, a special one that took him two weeks to assemble. Then we started racing. I was the youngest by at least 10 years.”

That penchant for breaking ground has defined his career.

Hamilton, whose grandparents came from Grenada, is the first black driver in Formula One and the youngest to lead the standings. He could become the first rookie and youngest driver to win the world title at 22 years, nine months and two weeks on October 21 at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the final race of the season.

Ironically, his McLaren teammate and rival, two-time defending champion Fernando Alonso, currently holds the distinction as youngest champion. He was 24 years and two months when he first won in 2005 for Renault.

Hamilton was barely 12 when he met Ron Dennis, now his boss at McLaren, at an awards dinner where Hamilton received a trophy. Hamilton told Dennis that he wanted to become a race driver, making an impression with his directness. “We’ll keep in touch,” Dennis told him.

Support

Getting the attention of the McLaren team boss boosted his career, but Hamilton says he never would have had the chance to realise his dream without the support of his father, Anthony.

“Without dad’s drive and wisdom I couldn’t have made it,” said Hamilton, who was brought up by his father and his stepmother after his parents divorced. “We had to stick together. We were on our own. There was me and my family. That’s where I get my strength and determination to succeed from.”

Hamilton’s father, a railway engineer who worked two extra jobs to finance his son’s career, is now his manager. He is a constant presence in the McLaren garage and usually gets the first hug when his son gets out of the car after a victory or winning a pole.

Hamilton got his first taste of real racing when his father bought him a kart for Christmas just before he turned eight. “I just seemed to have the knack, the technique you need in karting, working the throttle and the brake,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from, I just had it. I’m just very competitive. My dad is the same.”

Dennis noticed Hamilton’s talent early, signing him as a 13-year-old to race in karts.

Hamilton has been successful at every step up the ranks since. He won last year’s GP2 championship, a feeder circuit for Formula One. In 2005, he dominated the F3 series, winning 15 of 20 races.

This year, Hamilton started with a rookie-record nine straight top-three finishes, getting a third in his first race at the Australian Grand Prix.

“From the time I started my racing career in cadet karts in 1994 right the way through to Formula Renault, Formula 3 and GP2, I have dedicated my life to achieving my goal of becoming a Formula One world champion,” Hamilton said.

That dream was jeopardised when he slid off the track last Sunday at the Chinese Grand Prix with badly worn tyres, his first retirement of the season. That put him in a three-way struggle with defending champion Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen heading to Brazil. Hamilton has 107 points, Alonso 103 and Raikkonen 100.

With points awarded on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis, Hamilton is the only driver that controls his fate.

If he finishes first or second—something he has done nine times in 16 races this year—he wins the title no matter what the others do. If Alonso or Raikkonen wins, the world championship will depend on how far back Hamilton finishes.

For example, if Alonso won and Hamilton was third, they would tie on points but Alonso would win the title because he would have five wins to Hamilton’s four. Raikkonen already has five wins, but needs both Alonso and Hamilton to falter to have a shot at the title.

Challenges

Hamilton has also faced challenges off the track. In addition to dealing with his team’s spying scandal with Ferrari that resulted in McLaren being fined $100-million, he has had a very public rift with Alonso.

The Spaniard has griped that as world champion he deserves different treatment than a rookie, contrary to McLaren’s policy of treating the drivers as equals.

“We all know how the team celebrates the victory of one team member and the other,” Alonso said to Spanish media at the Chinese Grand Prix. “And when you hear the declarations of your boss saying that he feels a paternal sentiment for one of your teammates and rivals, then you know that you can never have much trust in what that person will do.”

Through it all, Hamilton has shown poise that belies his rookie status. “I try to take whatever negative energy is thrown at me and turn it into a positive,” he said.

Now he has to overcome his error of failing to pit for fresh tyres at the Chinese Grand Prix.

“Obviously I was gutted when I got out of the car as I hadn’t made a mistake all year and to do it on the way into the pits is not something I usually do,” Hamilton said. “But you can’t go through life without making mistakes. I’m over it.”

And ready to pursue his dream in Brazil.—Sapa-AP

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