Big interview * Lewis Hamilton
05-06-06 Suggested by: Jack of all Trades
'If I end up alongside Alonso it won't intimidate me'
Here he comes, with an easy charisma and a crunching handshake which could only belong to the surest bet in British sport. This is Lewis Hamilton, a 21-year-old from Stevenage with a face and a name that, a few years from now, are expected to be burned into your brain as formula one's first black world champion. It could be a terrible burden for him, especially as he is already being hailed as motor racing's answer to Tiger Woods. Even more than that lazy analogy, it may be daunting for him to hear that some of formula one's most venerable observers say his talent should be compared to a young Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna.
Yet Hamilton does not look startled by such claims. Whether discussing his searing self-belief, his obsession with Senna, being bullied as a boy or his younger brother's cerebral palsy, he talks quietly and thoughtfully. "I really don't know what it is that makes me so good," he says. "I just believe if there's one thing I'm meant to do really well, it's racing."
This month, in winning two GP2 races at the European grand prix meeting at the Nürburgring, his driving was described as "truly astounding" by Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's chief executive officer. Coming from a taciturn F1 outfit in a tough business which relies on hard facts rather than outrageous hype, the comments were surprising. Despite claiming that "we want to keep pressure and sense of anticipation off Lewis", Whitmarsh praised him for producing "the most phenomenal performance ever seen in a GP2 race". Those words only increased speculation that this young driver, contracted to McLaren for the past nine years, could replace Kimi Raikkonen there next season and race alongside the current world champion Fernando Alonso, who is committed to leaving Renault for McLaren in 2007.
Amid the rumours that Raikkonen will move to Ferrari if Schumacher retires, Hamilton shrugs. "If Kimi's smart he'll stay at McLaren." But then he laughs helplessly at my suggestion that Raikkonen, when deciding on his future, could prove as dumb as he sounds in his more banal interviews. "Yeah!" he exclaims. "Ideally! It gives me a much better chance if he does go. But look at Alonso. He started at Minardi, so I expect to do something like that [and be loaned to a team at the back of the grid]. But if I end up alongside Alonso it definitely would not intimidate me. I've never had a team-mate who's beaten me over the course of a season. So I would love that challenge."
In a gleaming boardroom at McLaren's Surrey headquarters, in Norman Foster's floating white masterpiece of architectural design, Hamilton leans forward in anticipation and conviction. And in this completely guileless moment it is possible to imagine him as the nine-year-old boy that Ron Dennis, McLaren's supremo, first met in 1994. Hamilton was already a junior karting champion but, as a black kid from Stevenage, it took courage for him to approach Dennis at an awards dinner.
"We couldn't afford a suit and so I'd borrowed a dark green silky suit off this guy who had won the same karting championship the year before. I even got his shoes. I went up to Ron and told him I wanted to drive for McLaren and become world champion. He wrote in my autograph book: 'Try me in nine years.' But two or three years later he called me."
McLaren financed Hamilton's brilliant karting career - with each triumphant season being followed by another in a faster and older class. But, even before the start of that fruitful relationship, the course of his life had been decided. "I was nine when Ayrton Senna died, and he was my hero. I remember racing that weekend in Hoddesdon. My dad had a small Vauxhall Cavalier and a trailer at the back. We'd sit in the Cavalier and wait for my turn to race. And that day my step-mum came over to tell us Senna had just died. It hit me hard - but I never liked to show emotion in front of my dad. So I went behind the trailer and cried. That was the turning point of my life - because when you're so young, you believe people like Senna are invincible. And then you realise that they're also mortal. It made me understand I need to make the most of my talent."
Hamilton had already displayed, in another vulnerable period, the strength to overcome adversity. "I was about five and being bullied at school. It was a horrible time but I told my dad I wanted to start karate so I could learn to protect myself. The bullying stopped and, more importantly, I got real self-confidence."
In later years he tried to keep his racing life a secret in Stevenage. "Kids at school would say, 'What you doing this weekend?' and I'd say, 'Oh, I'm going karting.' They'd say, 'I might see you up the road then' - at the local karting track. I would just nod because I wanted to keep the real extent of my racing quiet. It helped make school feel like an escape if no one knew what I was achieving in racing. School was my time to mess about and have a kid's life - to be normal. But at weekends I never had a chance to go to any of those under-18 clubs or parties. And that affects you because your friendships are not so strong. When you say 'I can't go out because I'm racing this weekend' your friends think you're just blowing them off. Even when, near the end, I'd tell people at school I was going to Japan for a week to race, they'd look at me blankly. It just didn't click."
His closest friend, inevitably, was another racing prodigy, Nico Rosberg, who has shown such promise for Williams this season. "We were karting team-mates in Italy for two seasons and were racing to see who would become the youngest ever driver in F1. Nico got there first because he had a season in GP2 last year [winning the championship] while I was in formula three. GP2 is vital because the set-up of the car is very similar to F1 and on some tracks we hit the same speed at the end of a straight."
Hamilton grins when asked who was the better racer in karting. "Nico's the most competitive person I've ever met and he was really tough - but I won the European championship and he came second. But we shared the same hotel room and always spoke of how fantastic it would be to compete against each other for the formula one world championship."
His friend's father, Keke Rosberg, was a world champion, but Hamilton's own dad came from a humbler past. Anthony Hamilton, the son of immigrants from Trinidad, had to struggle for years to fund Lewis's outrageously expensive karting career. "I don't think he ever went into debt but he had quite a few jobs on the go. His main job was with the railways but I also remember him putting up 'For Sale' signs - he'd get £15 a sign."
Apart from his father, who now acts as his manager, Hamilton is accompanied to every race by his brother. "Nicholas is seven years younger and he's a great character. He might have cerebral palsy but he definitely wants to do something special with his life - maybe in the wheelchair Olympics or even something around F1. I wouldn't put it past him trying to be a commentator. We hang around together a lot and he gives me real perspective. He's the one member of my family who'll keep my feet on the ground - especially when I get to F1."
When Hamilton becomes the first black driver in formula one the Tiger Woods references will intensify. "It's going to be a pain, the whole fame thing, but I'm strong enough to handle it. When I'm at a race now I don't think, 'Oh man, I'm the only black guy here!' I noticed it more in karting. On the day Senna died there was another black family at the track. But they weren't doing anything big because they didn't have the money. In karting, because some of the kids were immature, the odd racist thing would pop up. But I channelled my aggression - that's one of my great strengths. I was also taught that the best way to beat them is out on the track."
This weekend Hamilton and his GP2 rivals follow the grand prix circus to Monaco, where last year, before winning a formula three race, he drew further inspiration from Senna's genius. "With my engineers I watched an old Senna lap at Monaco. It was far harder to be an F1 driver then, and he basically drove the lap one-handed and had to correct the car four or five times. But he was still a second quicker than anyone. That's how he drove - on the very limit or just over it. That's what makes me want to be like Senna. Like him, I'm trying to be the perfect driver."
Hamilton's assurance and belief are worn lightly, but in a sporting world of infinite uncertainty it's hard to resist a sure-fire hit. When I ask if my money would be safe if, straight after this interview, I hustled down to the bookies and placed a big bet on him becoming formula one world champion in the next five years, he pauses dramatically. And then he grins broadly. "I would have to say, yes . . ."
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