Advertisements: Motor Racing - So will it be Lewis to the rescue?

The hottest new name in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton is marketing gold dust. No wonder his backers are looking forward to the drive of their life. Ian Burrell reports from Valencia
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The Independent Online

Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 motor racing driver who is in pole position to become Britain's next sporting icon, is only 22 and looks as if he's still in his teens. But that isn't quite young enough for the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), which has cast him as a child (played by nine-year-old Redmond Carter) for a television campaign for Vodafone that will launch in Britain in March, ahead of the next F1 season.

The suggestion being that with the right mobile phone, you can achieve anything. Well, that's advertising for you.

Hamilton will play a critical role not just in the marketing of the mobile phone company, which hopes that he will produce the levels of publicity that David Beckham generated in his Vodafone-branded Manchester United days, but in refreshing the image of McLaren, the team he will race for.

Ron Dennis, owner of the team renamed this season as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes (VMM), admitted concern that market research carried out last year showed McLaren was viewed by the public as "cold, grey and unemotional". Hamilton is seen as the perfect answer to that. He will show, Dennis believes, that "we are full of emotion and we are going to facilitate people realising their dreams".

David Wheldon, Vodafone's global director of brand, is similarly enthusiastic. "This is a wonderful young man, inspirational to all sorts of people," he says. "It's probably the same kind of empathy and success we had in the early days of Beckham. We were very lucky when we first started sponsoring Manchester United - that was on the upswing of Beckham. I hope this is going to engage the British public with Formula 1 in a way they haven't before."

Hamilton is marketing gold dust. His rise to the top has been the stuff of a Disney children's movie. Growing up in Stevenage as part of a family of modest income, he competed with the rich kids in the world of go-karting and became British champion at the age of 10. At a motorsport dinner and wearing a borrowed suit, the 10-year-old Hamilton had the chutzpah to approach Dennis and tell him: "I want to drive for McLaren and be world champion."

Dennis has since followed Hamilton's career very closely, as he has moved through the ranks, destroying the opposition in last season's GP2 series (the level beneath Formula 1).

But it is not just Hamilton's driving ability that appeals to sponsors. He is good-looking, well-mannered, always smiling and comfortable with the media. Of mixed English and Caribbean heritage, he possibly appeals to a wider demographic than previous British motor racing heroes such as James Hunt and Damon Hill, who may not have shared his fervour for "R&B and funky house".

The Sun has already dubbed him "F1's Tiger Woods". Like Woods and Theo Walcott, with whom he is likely to be compared, he has benefited from the support of his father. He also speaks lovingly of his brother Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy.

The original "concept" for the BBH ad campaign featuring Hamilton was based on the idea of a young boy standing on a chair, looking into a mirror and seeing a motor racing driver in the reflection. The theme of, "Where you finish is up to you - make the most of now", recognises the importance of time to both the phone company sponsors and the motor racing team.

One poster ad, shortly to be deployed around Britain, will feature Hamilton's own words of gratitude at having risen to a position where he will partner twice world champion Fernando Alonso in next season's VMM line-up. "Every time I start the car, I smile. When I pull down my visor, I smile. When I pull out of the garage, I smile. I'm just living my dream."

In the television campaign, Hamilton, played by Londoner Redmond, is racing a rocket ship around the galaxy, as a voice-over challenges: "When we are young, we all have dreams of speed and excitement and adrenaline. Some have those dreams and they don't quite happen."

When the new VMM team was launched last Monday in Valencia, Hamilton was on media as well as driving duty. At the city's Restaurante Submarino, he gave a short address to guests before moving from table to table to answer journalists questions. Sitting next to The Independent, he reiterates the ambition he expressed to Dennis 12 years ago: "I'm very relaxed but extremely excited. To have come off such a fantastic season in 2006, the icing on the cake was getting the drive alongside Fernando. In terms of my life, nothing has changed... but now I have to start on my next chapter of life, which is becoming a world champion."

He hopes to have made it on to a podium within "one or two years".

Replacing him in the same seat a few minutes later, Alonso notes pointedly that Hamilton has "no experience" of F1 but adds that the young Englishman brings "fresh ideas" to the McLaren team.

Vodafone's Wheldon will be making the most of this fresh, new face to generate exclusive video content for his company's phone subscribers. A documentary is being made about the new VMM team and Hamilton will be asked to make his own video diary.

Vodafone's previous motor racing sponsorship was of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari team, which helped win business in crucial new markets in Italy and Germany. But by backing Ferrari, the British company was effectively living in the shadow of Italian royalty. Wheldon seems happy to have new personalities representing the brand.

Dennis says he is conscious of the dangers of giving Hamilton too much media coverage. "The desire to over-expose Lewis and put up the whole Lewis story is not just an English issue - it's a global issue. All you can do is go down the path of quality-controlled exposure, with fair rules of engagement. We will make Lewis available, but we will certainly limit one-on-ones [exclusive interviews], because they are so massively time-consuming and can be very intrusive and distracting for a young driver. In some instances, it's like the young driver being thrown to the wolves and that certainly isn't going to happen."

Later that evening, Hamilton does not look like he is being exploited as he is introduced to thousands of Spanish fans, waving to them from the back of an open-topped Mercedes. He transfers to an F1 car and demonstrates his skills behind the wheel, navigating a small circuit that has been set up in the centre of Valencia.

Arun Sarin, Vodafone's chief executive, takes to a stage to reiterate the company's three alliterative, but otherwise hardly inspiring, watchwords: "Red! Rock-solid! Restless!"

Then Hamilton is brought on again, this time face to face with Redmond, the boy who plays him in the ad campaign. "I wish I'd been as mature at that age," says Hamilton, and flashes another winning smile.