Will Lewis Hamilton be the next Briton to win the world drivers' championship?

McLaren are preparing a remarkable talent for Formula One. David Tremayne talks to a man on a fast learning curve
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The Independent Online

If Lewis Hamilton carries on his impressive performances in the GP2 series, which replaced Formula 3000 in 2005 and is one rung below Formula One, he might yet beat Jenson Button as the next Briton to win a grand prix.

While Button's season has fallen apart at Honda, Hamilton has taken the feeder series by storm, winning five of the 11 races. His second triumph, at Silverstoneon Sunday, came after overtaking moves that left few observers doubting that they were watching a future world champion.

"Every year as you step up there are certain ways you have to up your game and interact with the team," Hamilton suggests. "There's a way of learning and you need to do that as fast as possible to get on the pace. Each year you analyse your last season. How did it go so well? How did you get to those stages? And then you try to improve that further."

He is one of the sharpest yet most grounded young Britons to come to prominence since Button came on to the international stage in 2000. He admits that he is self-critical, and his thought processes reveal a keen intellect. "You can be kicked up the arse by someone else, or you can kick yourself. People ask me where does the main pressure come from? Is it McLaren? Sponsors? No, I put a lot of pressure on myself. The desire to win is so strong, it's incredible. So when you make a mistake, and you know you shouldn't have made a mistake or you know you can do better, it's a real pain. But you dance back a little bit, and turn all that negative energy into something positive. "

In Spain, Hamilton smiled on the podium after his ART team-mate Alexander Premat, pulled a cheap move to push him into a spin before stealing the win. But while he acted like a sponsor's dream, Hamilton admits he was angry inside.

"I'm only human. I wasn't happy about it, for sure. The thing with me is that I feel I am a very fair driver. No one likes losing, and for sure winning means everything to me. I don't mind losing if it's a fair fight. But when it's unfair it's even harder to deal with. But I think the key is to be professional, and I do my talking on the track. It's important to control yourself and be professional about it and move on while taking everything you can from that race."

Hamilton has inherited his self-control from his father, Anthony, who runs his own IT and network support company close to the family home in Hertfordshire. "I've been very fortunate having my father's support all the way. Mentally, he is very strong. He's had a major influence on my mental preparation and the way I think. It's a difficult skill to put things behind you, but sometimes you see all these drivers looking so disappointed. And you think: 'Get a grip of yourself. You can bounce back.' If you let it kill you, you'll never improve."

Besides being a very quick and clean driver, Hamilton is polite and articulate, characteristics that do not distinguish all racing drivers. That family background is one of the major reasons why he is so grounded. " Possibly I come from a different background to some people," he says, "but I think the main thing is I have a fantastic family that's been behind me all the way, my father Anthony and my stepmother Linda, and my brother Nicholas. Nicholas and I get on really well and he's a great kid. He's an inspiration not only to me, but to a lot of other people." Nicholas has cerebral palsy.

"He's always got a smile on his face," Hamilton says. "He's always positive, he never complains about what he has. He just keeps his chin up. Whenever I think I have problems I just think how many problems in life he has. I mean, he can't do half the things that I can do and yet he is always happy. I think that's a strong message. For sure, having him as a brother has a major effect on the way that I think."

Hamilton is much more conscious of that than he is of his status as a racial role model. "That's an issue to the media," he says, though Formula One is still an insular environment where stereotyping can occasionally raise its head. "I don't really take much notice of the idea of being a ground-breaker. I feel normal, I don't feel any different to the other drivers apart from having a certain level of confidence in what I can do... I've got an ambition, and that's to get to Formula One. If anything, I think my colour's a positive, and hopefully in the future it can open doors for other cultures. It's great to see Narain Karthikeyan, and the Japanese drivers. It doesn't have to be a white-dominated sport, it can be open to all of us. The sooner that happens, the better it is for F1."

The McLaren-Mercedes team principal, Ron Dennis, has been supporting Hamilton's career since he was 13, and the team's current No 2 driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, has allegedly been told that even at half the fee his services will not be required as partner to Fernando Alonso, the present world champion, who joins the team from Renault next year. With Kimi Raikkonen headed for Ferrari, McLaren will need a second driver. Hamilton admits that when his long-term deal started he was not old enough to appreciate its significance fully, but now says: "For sure, McLaren is where I'd love to be. I've been there for nine years now, I've got a decent relationship with Ron, especially in the past couple of years. I think it's always going to be good when you're winning. I don't think many people are as passionate about racing as he is. I wouldn't be here today if he hadn't stuck by me, and I just hope that one day I can get in his car and sort of pay him back, in a way. It just depends on whether he is going to give me that opportunity. He has said that there is a possibility, but just to concentrate on winning in GP2, like they have asked me every year to do, to dominate. It's a much steeper learning curve this year, coming into your first GP2 season and to have to do it." Yet he is likely to emulate his long-time racing rival Nico Rosberg - now driving in Formula One for Williams-Cosworth - in taking the title.

Dennis remains cautious. He will not squander valuable development time by letting Hamilton test a Formula One car any time soon, but admits a session in the factory simulator is on the cards. "Wherever Lewis ends up next year - and there's every indication that that should be an Formula One car - history accepts that no driver comes into Formula One and has the level of success that would make him a championship contender," he said at Silverstone. "There will be one, two, three years of coming to grips with Formula One. What we can do is prepare him best for that first year, because that's the best way to demonstrate to ourselves that the strategy that's unfolded over the last 11 years has been right."

Deciphering Ronspeak, that might mean that if he does not get a race drive at McLaren in 2007, Hamilton might at least step up to senior tester level. But looking at how Rosberg has gone this year (or, how Montoya has not), a race seat should not be ruled out. Hamilton is not yet 21, yet has clearly shown he is not just a fast driver, but also a fast learner. One man who was greatly taken with him at Silverstone was Sir Stirling Moss. "He is the most impressive young driver I've seen in a long while," he said. " He has the car control and he has the calmness when he is driving, but he is also a fighter and has a great manner about him."

With Alonso in the lead car, Dennis might just feel when the time comes that he can afford to invest a year or two in further nurturing a young man who is likely to be one of the Spaniard's strongest rivals in the not too distant future.

Race pace: Motor sport's slow progress

Non-white drivers have had a difficult time in motor sport. Wendell Scott fought all manner of outright prejudice and hostility in America's Nascar series' early years, while the Domingos brothers toughed it out with limited success on South Africa's Formula One/F5000 scene in the Seventies. In the Eighties, the American Willy T Ribbs doorstepped the great Muhammad Ali for support and, emulating Ali's reputation for outspokenness, carried his racing career as far as America's IndyCar championship. More recently, the Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan burst on to the Formula One scene with Jordan in 2005, and is currently engaged as a test driver for Williams-Cosworth.