Lewis Hamilton: World leader driven to get back to front

McLaren have run into early trouble so great Briton faces the fight of his life to retain crown. David Tremayne talks to Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton heads to Melbourne this week for the start of the 2009 Formula One World Championship knowing two things: nothing can take away the title he won in 2008; and his campaign to keep his crown this season has already run into trouble.

The 24-year-old's new McLaren Mercedes MP4-24 recently fell behind its rivals as an upgraded aerodynamic package failed to live up to expectations. Last week Hamilton completed the final test session in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain, where team insiders praised his commitment. "Lewis is still very positive about the year ahead and is extremely supportive of the team and our efforts to get back to the front," one said. "He has not been deterred at all by our recent testing pace. If anything, he is working even harder."

Since he graduated to F1 in 2007, and showed his mettle by beating his team-mate Fernando Alonso in a breathtaking rookie season, Hamilton has shown the resilience and devotion that mark out champions. "My plan is to be at the front of the grid in Melbourne," Hamilton insists, "but if I'm not able to start from there, I'll still race my heart out. I can't wait to get back racing."

Brave words from a man who knows he is on the back foot already in a season in which numerous rule changes have opened up so many different avenues of technical development.

It helps – oh, how it helps – that he won the title in that dramatic showdown with Felipe Massa in Brazil last year. You sense in him that, while the hunger for more glory remains, part of his spirit has been calmed by the success. "I am happy with what I have achieved," he smiles, "but now is the beginning of something new. Every year I have got better. I am already better than I was last year, physically, mentally, in terms of the balance in my life."

He says that he managed his time much better during the winter, that while he could cope with the demands of one more sponsor, he is not really sure he would want to. "My goal was never to get to F1 so I could earn money. My goal was to get to F1 because I love racing. I am sure any driver would tell you they would do it for free – it's just fortunate that you get paid for something you enjoy."

He has also been training harder and with more detailed focus, both at McLaren's headquarters and in the mountains near his home in Geneva. He loves the Swiss lifestyle, where he can be his own man without being hounded. "I'm not there a great deal. Two to four days at a time. When I got home after winning the World Championship I found a red carpet outside my door, a message saying 'World Champion' and bottle of champagne from the old guy across the corridor. He's very supportive. I never want to leave. I love being in my bed, getting up and doing my training. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I want to win more, I want to be more consistent, though in 2007 nine podiums in my first nine races was pretty special."

Has being world champion lived up to his expectations? "I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be awesome to be world champion?' And it is a good thing. I've got more respect from different people, I've made my family proud. I can say to myself, 'You've achieved something'.

"People ask, 'How do you feel to be world champion straight after you raced?' The fact is that I lost the World Championship in 2007 and that night I was exhausted, I was unhappy because I didn't win. That lasted for a long time. Eventually you come to terms with it and you rebuild. But when you win the World Championship... you sit back in the chair and think, 'Wow!' But you're so exhausted by everything that's gone on that it takes time. Bit by bit you begin to realise what a great achievement it is. And that's such a satisfying feeling."

When Nigel Mansell won the crown in 1992, Ayrton Senna said to him: "It's such a good feeling, isn't it? Now you know why I'm such a bastard. I don't ever want to lose the feeling or let anybody else experience it." So would it hurt Hamilton afresh to lose it this year? He thinks about it for a moment. "Losing it when you have never had it before is definitely harder. I am very appreciative that last year I had a great opportunity, a great car, and a great team who did a great job. I am mindful that you can't do it all the time. Some win one, some win two or three. I don't know how many I am going to win, but I know that I am just as determined as ever before.

"Driving the car is going to be harder this year, with the new front wing and KERS controls," he points out. "It's hugely challenging. But perhaps the pressure from the outside world will be easier. I love this sport. I love this job. It's so cool working for the best team in the world."

McLaren's DNA was formed by the efforts of great champions of the past – Denny Hulme, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Senna, Mika Hakkinen. And none of it is lost on Hamilton. Despite his tender years, he has an appreciation of his sport's heritage.

He nods his head at the display of historic McLarens at the team's Technical Centre in Woking, where our interview takes place. "You see all those cars down there in the boulevard? It's incredible to see I have my own car there now." He is referring to his World Championship-winning MP4-23.

"I walk past them and it brings back memories. As a boy I used to touch the steering wheel of Ayrton's car and think, 'This was the car he drove'. I touched seatbelts that once touched Senna. Now I've got my car there. One day some kid will walk past it and do the same thing about me. And I hope it inspires him to do the same as me."

Hamilton's boyhood hero-worship of the Brazilian brings forth inevitable comparisons: the first pole position, the first win, the first title. Does he aspire to win three titles, as the great Brazilian did? "I am not here to beat records; not Michael [Schumacher]'s records or Ayrton's records. I always said, as a kid, I'd love to be an F1 driver. Then to be world champion. Then to do what Ayrton did, which was to win three World Championships. I look at Alain Prost, Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Stirling Moss; one day I'd like to be thought of like them."

Realistically, he probably has five or six great years in him before other young turks emerge to steal the limelight. "For sure, I am going to be here for at least another five years," he says. "I might just enjoy it, so you might have to put up with me for another 10!

"But I don't want to be here until I am old and grey. There are not many 24-year-olds who can say they have experienced what I have experienced, and I am mindful of that."

Like other stars before him, Hamilton is not a member of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, and despite pressure to join and criticism for not doing so, he prefers to follow his own heart. "I haven't thought about it too much," he admits. "You don't have to be a member of something to support it – and I am very supportive of the GPDA. I'm not in the right position yet to feel I can have a big enough impact."

That's a remarkable comment for the youngest-ever champion to make, but when you pick him up on it he merely smiles and says: "It's just your position, where you feel you are in your life."

Right now, he is more focused on the tough job that lies ahead. "Melbourne is one of my top three races of the year. I love the weather. I don't know how other teams will be. We go there not knowing how fit everyone else is; not knowing what's going to happen." Clearly that is something he likes, that uncertainty, even if it might work against him. For a driver of Hamilton's calibre, winning need not be everything so long as you know you gave everything you had in the fight. But he will only be content for so long to have drawn everything out of himself and his car if somebody else is first to the chequered flag.

A final comment is perhaps most revealing about this remarkable young race driver. Last year he was accused of being arrogant, and a groundswell to that effect gathered strength in the paddock. Those who know him well believe it has its roots in comments made by other drivers, disgruntled to be so comprehensively upstaged by him. Does that sort of accusation hurt?

"I never want to hear that kind of thing," he says. "I think you know I am not. I know what I am capable of, I know where I am, but what I do is take the criticism and try to understand why it's being said.

"Everyone makes mistakes, for sure, maybe there is a point where you have been arrogant and come across as arrogant. So I have to accept that. You have to accept it – you can't say everyone else is stupid. So you just have to deal with it." One man's arrogance is another's self-confidence.

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