Hamilton was destined for glory

We chart the life of the lad with a 'bright smiley face and lovely manners'.

Lewis Hamilton in 1996 winning a junior go karting race.
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Through the chicanes and the chicanery he has snaked, through the motorised and Machiavellian manoeuvrings of others he has steered, through the preening popinjays and the plotting politicians he has swept: now Lewis Hamilton reigns supreme. Motor racing star-gazers had been predicting his coming as long ago as 2002 when, at the age of 17, he graduated from karting to single-seaters, finishing third in the Formula Renault championship. But if the rest of us heard the forewarnings of these sporting astronomers, then we paid them no heed; not in 2003 when Hamilton won the Formula Renault title with two rounds to spare... not in 2005 when he won the Formula Three Euroseries with 15 wins and 13 pole positions, and not even in 2006 when he won the GP2 championship at the first attempt, thereby securing his seat in an F1 McLaren and fulfilling a prophecy he had made 11 years earlier.

After winning his first British cadet karting championship aged nine, he introduced himself to the McLaren team principal Ron Dennis at a motor sport dinner with an outstretched autograph book and the stated intent: "I'm going to race for you one day, I'm going to race for McLaren." Since finishing third on his F1 debut in the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, Hamilton's fame has been growing race weekend by race weekend: nine wins from 34 starts, 22 podium finishes, and the legend is only just beginning.

Formula One convert and satirical impressionist Rory Bremner has been following Hamilton since being invited to attend last year's Monaco Grand Prix as a guest of his good friend Sir Jackie Stewart, which, as "the Man of 1001 Voices" puts it, "was a bit like spending three days in Tibet with the Dalai Lama. Everyone wanted an audience, a touch or even just a smile". "I only discovered Formula One last year," he says.

"My wife, Tessa, and I have been to several races now thanks to Sir Jackie, and they've all been memorable. But Monaco, in particular, was a fabulous experience. "We met some wonderful people in Monte Carlo, plus Ron Dennis and Lewis Hamilton who were such nice, kind, generous people. For a young man of 23 Lewis is possessed of the most amazing grace. The thing about him is he is so mature, so calm it is quite extraordinary really.

"Some people might say his success is due to the magnificent car he has been given to drive, but he obviously learns very quickly. His father, Anthony, told me that when Lewis was racing karts, he made a note of where all the other drivers braked then moved 15 yards further up the circuit to mark the spot where his son should brake. Lewis had his share of crashes but he got used to braking later than everyone else which is just one of the things that stands him out from the others in F1. But what strikes you most forcibly is how astonishingly calm, mature and sensible he is. You couldn't meet a more impressive young guy."

When Ron Dennis offered him what was generally regarded to be the McLaren No 2 seat riding shotgun to double world champion Fernando Alonso at a meeting in Nov 2006, Hamilton was "overwhelmed". Two years on, and the youngest world champion in the sport, how does this impressive young guy regard his feat? "I keep saying I'm living the dream and its really true," he says. And as dreams go, never mind Hamilton, here is one fairytale that has come straight from the imagination of Lewis Carroll.

Once upon a time, Thomas Edison proffered the notion that "genius is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration". Bright spark that he was, if only he had witnessed the eight-year-old Hamilton at the wheel of a go-kart then he might well have seen the light and recanted. The Rye House circuit situated beside a supermarket distribution centre in Hoddesdon, southern England, may lack the glitz of Monaco, the grandeur of Spa, or the glorious tradition of Silverstone but it was here that a tiny tot gave notice of his sporting genius and his intention to conquer the world.

As a novice racer, Hamilton was required to display a black number disc for his first six races and, as such, should have been dawdling along contentedly at the back of the field, instead of which he put his foot on the throttle and was immediately battling for the lead. If horse racing is the sport of kings then Formula One can be considered the sport of princes, not the sport of the sons of former British Rail workers from a council estate in humble Stevenage whose own parents had emigrated from the mountainous Caribbean island of Grenada in 1955.

When Lewis Hamilton (named in honour of Olympic multi-gold medallist Carl Lewis) was two, his parents separated, but he remains close to them both. Another vitally important member of this family support group Hamilton's is stepbrother Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy and who represents his "inspiration and best friend", Hamilton fell in love with racing at an early age and as a sign of things to come, appeared on the British kids show Blue Peter to show his prowess with a miniature radio controlled F1 car when he was just six.

So even in those formative days, did he display the ruthless streak of a future world champion? "No, not really," recalls Carol Hopkins, the deputy head of Peartree Junior School. "It was his bright, smiley face and lovely manners that I most remember him for. He enjoyed school to the full, certainly, but in those early years you would not have regarded him as a competitive little chap. Just very happy. A bright little button, but normal, very, very normal."

There was also evidence that here was one bright little button who had a burning desire not to yield to others: when Hamilton was singled out by playground bullies, he joined a karate club and by the age of 12 had gained an intermediate black belt. The martial arts, however, were but a passing fancy, and motor racing remained his one, true burning passion. Both father and son pledged heart and soul into turning fantasy into reality, Anthony Hamilton accepting a redundancy package from British Rail to allow him to juggle three part-time jobs - including putting up an estate agents' "For Sale" signs at £15 (Dh89) a board - and chauffeur his son all over Europe in search of the next victory. For his part, Lewis, who studied for his A levels at the Cambridge College of Arts and Science, worked as a waiter in a gastro-pub and served as a valet at the local Mercedes dealership which acted as his chief sponsor at the time. As the showroom's marketing manager James Costin explains: "Anthony was not happy for his son to be sitting around during the summer holidays, and Lewis was offered to us to provide a valet service on our cars. He had a real passion for cleaning cars and he kept them meticulous, putting our own valeting department to shame at times. He was 18, worked really hard, and made a lot of friends that summer. He was a likeable, down-to-earth guy. It was very clear, even then, that with McLaren's backing he was going to go a long way." A long way, indeed, as by Michael Schumacher in 2001 after the reigning world champion had raced against the teenage wannabe in a karting event in Germany. "He is a quality driver, very strong and only 16. It's something special to see a kid of his age drive like that. He's clearly got the right racing mentality and if he keeps this up then I'm sure he will reach Formula One. After that, who knows...?" We now know, Michael. rphilip@thenational.ae