Lewis Hamilton,the 22-year-oldwho in less than 12 months has gone from obscurity to within grasp of the Formula One World Championship, today stands on the brink of sporting history – and the prospect of becoming Britain's first billiondollar sportsman.
In searing temperatures and in front of roaring crowds, Hamilton narrowly failed to take pole position in the last practice before qualifying yesterday, finishing second behind local favourite Felipe Massa. Yet the rookie Briton has captured the hearts of the partisan crowd – who see him as more approachable than reigning champion Fernando Alonso. The story of how he rocketed to the summit of the sport means that while Massa may be cheered on to win the race itself, the crowd will be rooting for Hamilton to do enough to win the title. Driving in temperatures of 30C, Hamilton kept up the pressure. Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren teammate Alonso, the only drivers that can catch him in the championship, were third-fastest and eighthfastest respectively.
If Hamilton wins or is runner-up today, or finishes ahead of his two rivals, he will be crowned F1's youngest champion, the only rookie in history to take the title and the first Briton to win it since Damon Hill in 1996.
While Hamilton may be focused on the race that could make him millions, his father is fighting off the attentions of blue-chip companies desperate to sign up the young star to a string of lucrative sponsorship deals.
His rise to prominence has been so swift that his £400,000-a-year salary is a fraction of the £14m given to Alonso, with whom he has had a difficult relationship. But that is about to change, with Hamilton's performances this season placing him in a strong position to renegotiate his contract with his McLaren paymasters. A five-year deal worth £150m to keep him at the team could make him the highest-paid driver in F1.
Hamilton has already banked £1.3m from a biography that will come out next month, one of five to hit the shops before Christmas. And he flies the world in private jets as the first brand ambassador for Learjet.
Meanwhile, McLaren team sponsor Vodafone is poised to sign him up to a seven-figure personal sponsorship contract. David Wheldon, the company's brand director, said yesterday: "He is Britain's number one sporting hero. This boy is huge. If life goes well for Lewis he will be bigger than Tiger Woods."
The young driver is already heavily promoted by TAG Heuer, and a Lewis Hamilton limited edition watch goes on sale at £1,500 this week. The company says that "given the global appeal of Lewis Hamilton", the watches will be rolled out worldwide next year.
Public relations guru Max Clifford says the Briton could become one of the "highest-earning sports stars in the world" – a view shared by many experts. And whether Hamilton comes first or last in today's race will not change the fact that he is the hottest property in British sport, according to Rob Lester of Marketing Week: "He's in a different league to what we have seen before. Hamilton is a sponsor's dream and if anyone's going to become the first billion-dollar sportsman then he's going to."
He is already the most famous rookie since Tiger Woods burst on to the golf scene in 1996. The two have many similarities: both began winning at an early age, both were pushed by proud fathers, and both are hailed as great role models in and out of the sporting arena.
Since his natural ability became apparent at the age of six, Hamilton has been carefully managed by his father, Anthony, and "Team Hamilton" have come a long way from the days when father and son would travel the country from one karting circuit to the next.
The contrast between Hamilton's humble origins on a council estate in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and the glamour of F1 has been a key ingredient in the rookie's transformation from title contender to people's champion. McLaren "adopted" the then 13-year-old in 1998 and invested millions in his development. Hamilton had met team supremo Ron Dennis four years earlier, when he had said that he would race for him one day. He won practically every junior championshipbefore turning the sport upside down with his breathtaking performances this season.
The sudden fame has seen Hamilton embrace a new Alist circle of friends, including Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé and P Diddy – who threw a lavish party in his honour in July this year. His father is starting to accept that an outside agency may be required to take over the management of his son's affairs. Industry sources say Ayrton Senna's former manager Julian Jacobi is in the running.
But first, the championship. For the first time in more than 20 years, three drivers are fighting it out. It has been a season that has seen Hamilton in a running war of words with Alonso, survive a 175mph crash, and walk away from the Ferrari "spy-gate" scandal with his reputation intact.
Brand Hamilton – a potent mixture of youthful good lucks, boy-next-door charm and sheer racing ability – is taking the sport beyond the realm of petrol heads. New research from Ipsos Mori reveals how the interest in the sport is at a three-year high, propelling it above rugby and cricket for the first time.
Nigel Currie, director of Brand Rapport and former chair of the European Sponsorship Association, said: "Once he's won a few championships he'll be able to write his own ticket, just as Schumacher did. He has got the whole package – looks and talent – and is a marketing man's dream. If he doesn't win I think it will just postpone the inevitable really – he'll probably come back stronger and win it by a country mile next time."
Speaking yesterday, Bernie Ecclestone, the man who runs Formula One, predicted "Lewis will win the championship" and made it clear why he favours the rookie. "Fernando was world champion for two years and didn't make that much effort with the media. Poor Kimi, he's a good fellow, but he's not an outgoing guy ... Young Lewis, he is a breath of fresh air."
Hamilton has spent the past 16 years of his life preparing for this point and just 71 laps of a 4.3km circuit stand in the way of him taking his place in sporting history by winning the F1 Championship at his first attempt.
But with the coolness that has become his trademark, Hamilton remains focused on what will be the race of his life – at Brazil's Interlagos track in Sao Paulo at 5pm this afternoon.
"I have the chance to win the world championship," he said, "If I do, fantastic. It will be a big step in my career and my life. If not, I will live to fight another day."Reuse content