Legends still divided over Hamilton's drive to turn brilliant talent into glory

At tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix the Briton has a first chance to show if he can go one better than last year, writes David Tremayne from Melbourne

Just suppose, for a moment, that Heikki Kovalainen were to do to Lewis Hamilton what Hamilton did to Fernando Alonso last year.

Heikki who? It's a programmed response from some, but then many said "Lewis who?" a year ago before the insouciant 22-year-old rookie showed the reigning Spanish world champion how to drive a Formula One car very quickly for most of his debut season.

Who can forget the record-breaking string of nine podium finishes in his first nine grands prix? Four victories, two back to back in June, another against an increasingly disharmonious inter-team background in Hungary in August, and the last in the rain in Japan in September? Or that awful letdown in the final race when Finland's Kimi Raikkonen vaulted ahead of both Vodafone McLaren Mercedes pilots to snatch the title?

The success story is complete vindication of the faith Ron Dennis showed in Hamilton since, as a little kid, he strode up to Dennis at an awards dinner, stuck out his hand, and said: "One day I'm going to drive for McLaren..."

Twelve months ago, only the specialist media really appreciated Hamilton's potential, but even they were astounded by the reality. Today he is a clear world championship contender and the de facto team leader, but just how much did he exceed McLaren's own expectations?

"I think it would be fair to say that he exceeded everyone's expectations," Dennis says.

Recent form in testing has suggested that Hamilton can get the job done for McLaren this year, and the man himself recently sent this message to Raikkonen: "With the package we have, I doubt very much that Kimi will run away with it. I feel we have an even better opportunity this weekend than we did last year at this time. So this year I think it is a lot closer. We have very equal cars."

Dennis has no doubts about his protégé. "He's a fantastic grand prix driver. We're delighted to have signed him to a very long-term contract, and he's delighted to have signed that. But he isn't the team leader. We at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes operate a system of rigorous equality re driver treatment, and that will continue to be the case."

There have been suggestions that it will hurt McLaren to have lost a driver of Alonso's technical experience, but Dennis disagrees. "Lewis been a more or less full-time racing driver for more than a dozen years, and consequently has an enormous mental databank of experience. Moreover, he works incredibly hard with his engineers – and from a technical point of view he's therefore improving, from an already high starting point, all the time."

So what about that Kovalainen thing? What if his speed in testing translates into lap times faster than Hamilton's? Is there a pecking order within McLaren?

"I've already said, Lewis isn't the team leader. And as regards pushing Lewis, that isn't the way we look at it either. No, Heikki is already integrating himself into our team and we fully expect him to perform well for us."

Then there is the pessimistic view that, perhaps, 2007 will prove to have been Hamilton's big chance. Alonso might not subscribe to that, but he is tipping Raikkonen for a title repeat. "We have to see Ferrari are one of the favourites and, being last year's world champion, Kimi is the driver to beat," he says. "If I have to say one name, then Kimi.

"I think at the end of last year he did very good final races and he was also lucky to be world champion being so far behind at the end. He has put himself now in a very strong position. Now he will have the self-confidence."

Alonso nevertheless expects to see Hamilton improve further. "I wish him good luck for the championship. After one year's experience, things become maybe easier. You know the circuits, how the races go, and you understand the pressure."

Williams team manager Frank Williams believes Hamilton would be unbeatable in 2008 – if only he was driving a Ferrari. "I would say better," he replies to the question of how he expects the Briton to go this season. "Saying that, Ferrari looked quicker, mostly, on long runs – unless McLaren are sandbagging – so he will have his work cut out.

"But if the Ferrari is the better car this year, we should all, be saying to ourselves of Lewis, 'Thank God he is not in a Ferrari, otherwise there would be no point going racing'."

Quadruple world champion Alain Prost is also backing Hamilton. "I think Lewis will be the top guy," the Frenchman said. "If he has a good car, I don't think it should be a problem. He has more experience now." Prost does not believe that losing out in 2007 will affect Hamilton. "I lost the championship by a few points and at one time I said to myself it must be that I cannot win the championship – and then I won it four times later on. If you have everything together, you have plenty of time."

And what of F1's most astute observer, thrice champion Sir Jackie Stewart? He recently told Motor Sport magazine: "Had he been more experienced he would have made the decision to come in at Shanghai, instead of waiting for McLaren. But, while I hope it doesn't happen, he could easily fall into the 'second-season' syndrome. I know all about it because it happened to me."

So the jury is spilt. Now it's down to Hamilton and McLaren to prove they can take the fight to Ferrari.

Team-by-team guide to F1 2008

* FERRARI

Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen (Fin), Felipe Massa (Br)

Ferrari start as the pre-season favourite after last year's World Championship raid. They have dominated testing and are better than they were at the end of 2007.

* BMW SAUBER

Drivers: Nick Heidfeld (Ger), Robert Kubica (Pol)

Last year the Swiss-German team surprised everyone with their speed and reliability. This year the target is at least one victory.

* RENAULT

Drivers: Fernando Alonso (Sp), Nelson Piquet Jnr (Br)

Last year Alonso left and everything fell apart at the French team. Now he is back, but he says there is a lot of work to do, even for podiums.

* WILLIAMS

Drivers: Nico Rosberg (Ger), Kazuki Nakajima (Japan)

Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head have endured lean times of late. They have to buy their Toyota engines, but the new car is light years ahead of Toyota's.

* McLAREN

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton (GB), Heikki Kovalainen (Fin)

Testing suggests that McLaren will once again vie strongly with Ferrari all season. With Ron Dennis staying on, they have much to prove.

* RED BULL

Drivers: David Coulthard (GB), Mark Webber (Aus)

So much money, so few results. Dietrich Mateschitz must be wondering when his investment is going to start paying off. This team must start to deliver in 2008.

* TOYOTA

Drivers: Jarno Trulli (It), Timo Glock (Ger)

With an estimated annual spend of $400m [£197m] and no success to speak of it remains to be seen how much longer they will insist on doing things "the Toyota Way".

* HONDA

Drivers: Jenson Button (GB), Rubens Barrichello (Br)

With Ross Brawn in charge, they will start winning again. It is just a case of how long it takes him to turn things around.

* TORO ROSSO

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel (Ger), Sébastien Bourdais (Fr)

Last year a political war with factions at Red Bull created acrimony. Now things seem more harmonious, and this could reap the dividend of some points.

* FORCE INDIA

Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella (It), Adrian Sutil (Ger)

Owner Vijay Mallya has brought financial stability and given technical chief Mike Gascoyne a chance to make some serious progress.

* SUPER AGURI

Drivers: Anthony Davidson (GB), Takuma Sato (Japan)

Financial rescue by Magma Group has thrown them a crucial lifeline. They're running last year's Hondas, however, so don't expect miracles.

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