Having the right formula

Lewis Hamilton believes that his career depends solely on his ability to steer a Formula One car to victory.-AP

Drivers of different styles have adorned F1 over the years, but the package that Hamilton is, comes as a big surprise, especially considering that he hails from a background that had no interest in motor racing, writes G. Raghunath.

Australian Grand Prix 2007: Finishes third in his debut race at Melbourne, behind Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) and team-mate Fernando Alonso (McLaren). The performance is the best by a British driver in his first race since 1966.

Malaysian GP: Finishes second behind Alonso; becomes the first driver in 43 years to get on the podium in his first two Formula One races.

Bahrain GP: Finishes second behind Felipe Massa (Ferrari); becomes the first driver in the 58-year history of the World Championship to climb the podium in the first three races of his career. With 22 points he shares the Championship lead with Raikkonen and Alonso.

He also becomes the first driver in World Championship history to kick off his Formula One career with three consecutive finishes on the podium.

Spanish GP: Finishes second behind Massa and leads the Championship table with 30 points. At 22, he becomes the youngest driver in Formula One to head the World Championship.

Lewis Hamilton's dossier is getting bulkier with every race. As the boy wonder from Britain appears set to re-write a few more records, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve's breathtaking debut in 1996 should now be well within his sights.

Villeneuve, driving for Williams, squeezed ahead of big names such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Damon Hill to take the pole position in his maiden race, the Australian Grand Prix. He then set a blistering pace in the race and even went into the lead in Melbourne until team orders dashed his hopes of a dream finish. He was on the threshold of what would have been an extraordinary record — first driver in history to take the pole position and win in his debut race — but instructions wired to him from the Williams pits meant he had to make way for his team-mate Hill. The Canadian rookie finished second, but continued his phenomenal run that season, recording four victories and 11 podiums to finish runner-up in the World Championship, behind Hill.

Hamilton's performance so far this year indicates that he could not only be as spectacular as Villeneuve in his first Formula One season, but even better. Watching the young and effervescent driver take on the reigning World Champion Alonso and beat him in Bahrain and Barcelona with the kind of assurance and poise that is normally seen only in rock-hard professionals, some of the former great drivers are convinced that Hamilton would be the one to win the 2007 Drivers Championship.

The season is only four races old, and Hamilton is already being spoken of as a great driver, one who has the potential to replace Michael Schumacher in Formula One and, according to former World champion Jackie Stewart, "the most exciting sportsman in Britain". And being the first Formula One driver of African descent, he is even compared with Tiger Woods. "Hamilton is motor racing's answer to Tiger Woods," goes the refrain.

The comparison with Woods, and that too at this stage of his career is unfair to Hamilton. Not that he is complaining, or that it has particularly brought some needless pressure on him — the weight of expectation of his nation seems to rest so easily on Hamilton that he has seldom put a wheel wrong even in the face of the mighty challenges from older and experienced drivers such as Massa, Raikkonen and Alonso at the top of the grid — but the rookie driver himself believes that he has a long haul ahead of him and that his career depends solely on his ability to steer a Formula One car to victory.

Discussing strategy... Lewis Hamilton with his mentor and McLaren team head Ron Dennis.-AP

McLaren team head Ron Dennis had warned Hamilton a couple of years ago when he was being groomed for the Formula One circuit, "Your colour isn't important here. The moment you exploit your blackness, you are going to have a problem with me. You've got to develop your career on your ability to drive a racing car."

Hamilton understands this pretty well. After all, McLaren didn't take him into its fold simply because he is black. "The way I see it, my colour is an advantage in that it's something people talk about. But the bottom line is that it's clearly not why I'm in this position. I'm happy if other black kids see what I'm doing and realise it can be done, but that's not what motivates me. I'm doing it for me, because I want to win Formula One and because I believe I'm good enough to do that," he told reporters.

Drivers of different styles and breeds have adorned Formula One over the years, but the package that Hamilton is, comes as a big surprise, especially considering that he hails from a background that had no interest in motor racing. Hamilton's father, Anthony, migrated from Grenada to the UK and made Hertfordshire his home. It was only with the intention of encouraging his son in some activity outside his academics that he cosseted Hamilton's interest in motor racing.

Hamilton is furiously quick, gifted and very skilful behind the wheel. The way he outran Alonso from outside to enter the second turn ahead in the opening lap of the Australian GP at Albert Park or his bold manoeuvring from outside to overtake Massa in Malaysia to take the second place is a confirmation of the precocious driver's talent. He understands his car as well as a seasoned professional would. He is also mentally tough and has a mature head on his young shoulders.

According to Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's chief executive, Hamilton has the talent and determination that separates him from the average driver on the circuit. "Since I joined McLaren in 1989 I've worked with a lot of great drivers, including Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and now Fernando Alonso with Lewis — I think it's pretty clear Lewis ticks all the necessary boxes," Whitmarsh said. Whether it was his early karting days, when Hamilton, starting from the back of the grid as a novice, often sped through the field to challenge the front runners, or his first meeting with Ron Dennis at an awards function when he was only 12 years old, he showed up to be a boy of steely resolve.

The story goes that at an awards function in 1996, Hamilton went up to Dennis and declared his intention of racing for McLaren one day. The McLaren chief talked to him straight, asked him to win the karting championship the following season and then meet him. The next year Hamilton promptly went back to Dennis saying he had won the karting championship and sought to know what he had to do next. Dennis was stumped by the young boy's focus and determination and immediately inducted Hamilton into McLaren's Drivers Programme.

From karting to the British Formula Renault Series to the European Formula Three to the GP2 series and then on to Formula One, Hamilton's transition from one level to another has been smooth and effortless. Putting the car in front came naturally to him. But then, there are the cynics who look askance at Hamiton's incredible run of success. Some talk of the blow-ups and fender-benders the youngster could probably face later in the season or his career and wonder how Hamilton would handle them all.

Former GP driver Martin Brundle has an explanation for them. "No doubt, it's going to be a long haul for Lewis and there are a number of things he has to face — his first big shunt, for instance, and all the travel, which can be pretty wearying. But all the ingredients are there. He excites me. Will he be up there one day with the likes of Prost, Senna and Schumacher? He's got a chance, definitely," he said in an interview to `The Guardian'. Formula One is not a place for faint hearts and febrile minds. And Hamilton, with his magnificent driving, has declared his objective in no uncertain terms.

HAMILTON FACTFILE

Name: Lewis Hamilton Born: January 7, 1985 CAREER: Formula One debut: March 18, 2007 Champion, British Cadet Karting 1995 Champion, McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future series 1996, 1997 Champion, European & World Cup Karting 2000 Champion, Formula Renault UK 2003 Champion, European Formula 3 2005 Champion, GP2 2006

ON DEBUT Jacques Villeneuve (Canada) Active years: 1996-2006

Teams: Williams, BAR, Renault, Sauber, BMW Sauber

Debut: 1996. Wins 4, Podium finishes 11. Placed second.

Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina) Active years: 1950 - 1951, 1953 - 1958

Teams: Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes, Ferrari

Debut: 1950. Wins 3 (out of seven races). Placed third.

Giuseppe Farina (Italy) Active years: 1950-1955 Teams: Alfa Romeo, Ferrari

Debut: 1950. Wins 3 (out of seven races). Won the championship.

Bruce McLaren (New Zealand) Active years: 1959-1970 Teams: McLaren, Cooper, Eagle

Debut: 1959. Wins 1, Podium finishes 2. Placed sixth

Giancarlo Baghetti (Italy) Active years: 1961-1967

Teams: Ferrari, Automobili Turismo e Sport, Scuderia Centro Sud, Brabham, Reg Parnell, Lotus

Debut: 1961. Wins 1. Placed ninth.

Baghetti posted three successive victories in his debut season, winning the Syracuse GP, the Naples GP and the French GP. However, the first two races were not part of the World Championship.

Jackie Stewart (Britain) Active years: 1965 - 1973 Teams: BRM, Matra, March, Tyrrell

Debut: 1965. Wins 1, Podium finishes 5. Placed third.

Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil) Active years: 1970-1980 Teams: Lotus, McLaren, Fittipaldi Automotive. Debut: 1970. Wins 1. Placed 10th. Clay Regazzoni (Switzerland) Active years: 1970-1980

Teams: Ferrari, BRM, Ensign, Shadow, Williams.

Debut: 1970. Wins 1, Podium finishes 4. Placed third.

Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia) Active years: 2001-2006 Teams: Williams F1, McLaren

Debut: 2001. Wins 1, Podium finishes 4. Placed sixth.