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Hamilton - why there's still so much to celebrate 23 Oct 2007

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, British Grand Prix, Practice Day, Silverstone, England, Friday, 6 July 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, European Grand Prix, Race, Nurburgring, Germany, Sunday, 22 July 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren talks with the media.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, 19 October 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22 runs wide.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race Day, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 21 October 2007 Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren celebrates on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 10 June 2007

When Fernando Alonso wrapped up his second consecutive title in 2006 it looked as though - after six years of wondering - Michael Schumacher’s true successor had finally arrived. The era of Alonso was upon us and the question on everybody’s lips was: could anyone rival the Spaniard in the superstar stakes?

The answer was yes. From debutant to race winner, Lewis Hamilton’s rise through the ranks has been simply breathtaking. Over the past 17 races the 22-year-old has clinched six pole positions, four wins and 109 points - the most successful debut season in Formula One history. Yes, the world title may be Kimi Raikkonen’s, but few doubt one day it will be Hamilton’s.

Nobody - not even the young British driver himself - could have predicted what he would accomplish this year. Yes, through most of his career he has been a man to beat, but a driver winning a race and being in contention for a title in his maiden season? It all seemed a little too unlikely. Indeed, a pre-season crash during testing in Valencia prompted some to question Ron Dennis’s wisdom in promoting his protege so soon to a McLaren race seat.

Any lingering doubts, however, were quickly pushed aside when the season got underway in Melbourne. Starting fourth on the grid, he went around the outside of both BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica and Alonso into Turn One, going on to lead in his very first race, before eventually finishing an impressive third.

It was no fluke. Proving he had staying power, Hamilton went on to take four consecutive second-place finishes, then a maiden victory at the mid-season Montreal event and another at Indianapolis a week later. It was a run of success rare for any driver, but record breaking - nine successive podiums - for a rookie, and it took him right to the top of the driver standings.

A further two 2007 victories followed, a tally which included that dominant performance in appalling conditions at the Fuji Speedway, marking out Hamilton’s progress as truly dazzling. Consistent enough to allow his natural talent to shine through, yet nerveless enough to counter his inexperience, the British driver has regularly outpaced and out-thought much more seasoned drivers.

True, few rookies are gifted with the kind of reliable and quick car Hamilton has had at his disposal, but the McLaren’s excellent record shouldn’t distract from the British driver’s achievements. If the MP4-22 has enjoyed impeccable performances, so too has Hamilton.

Even team mate Alonso has struggled to get as much from the McLaren as the 22 year-old. Having expected number one status when he arrived at the British team, the Spaniard’s growing indignation at Hamilton’s speed brought untold strain to the squad’s dynamics. Incidents like their pit-lane run-in during qualifying in Hungary could have easily troubled the younger driver but, for the most part, Hamilton has stayed remarkably focused. He has also proved himself pretty adept at the political game, coping admirably with the whole McLaren-Ferrari ‘spy scandal’ furore.

With such distractions hanging in the air it has been far from easy for the young Briton. Indeed many thought he had cracked when he ran out of track at the pit entrance in China. Though the mishap prevented him from taking a historic debut title with a race in hand, Hamilton held his nerve as he headed to Brazil.

His scintillating performance during qualifying at Interlagos was evidence enough he had bounced back from the disappointments of Shanghai. Perhaps inexperience did get the better of him at the start, when he lost two places then ran wide trying to fight back against Alonso, but even after that and a disastrous gearbox glitch, he remained cool enough to climb back through the field to come seventh, just two points shy of winning the title at his first attempt.

In the words of his team boss, Ron Dennis: "He has broken more records than any other young driver and I think the records speak for themselves. We can all eulogise about his achievements but I think actions speak louder than words. He is just an exceptional talent and I am sure he will set many more records in the future."

With his on-track intensity and off-track charm, Hamilton has set Formula One racing on fire this season. He may still have a lot to learn, but he’s laid firm foundations for a lasting career and that drivers’ title can surely be only a matter of time.