LONDON // Lewis Hamilton starts the season as Formula One's youngest world champion and aiming to become the first British driver to retain the title. It promises to be the McLaren driver's greatest challenge yet with new regulations, a car that has been well off the pace in testing and a host of hungry rivals eager to put him in his place.
His compatriots Jackie Stewart (1969, 1971, 1973), Jim Clark (1963, 1965) and Graham Hill (1962, 1968) were all multiple champions but none managed to rack up two crowns in a row. The club of those who did numbers only eight members and is a roll-call of some of the sport's greatest names - the Italian Alberto Ascari, Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, Australian Jack Brabham, France's Alain Prost, Brazilian Ayrton Senna, Finland's Mika Hakkinen, Germany's Michael Schumacher and Spain's Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton might have been among them already, had he not lost out in his sensational debut 2007 season by a single point and against the odds to Ferrari's Finn Kimi Raikkonen. The British driver, 24, came close to blowing it again last year, beating Ferrari's Brazilian Felipe Massa by the same slender margin after the final race, but is ready to move on to a new level now. "If you were a climber and you've climbed Everest, then you don't fear doing it again. It's something that you know you can do," the McLaren chairman Ron Dennis said. "What you have to do is look at different ways of achieving it. The challenges this year, with a new set of regulations, are different to last. And just as a climber varies his route, I think that's how you have to look at Lewis's approach."
While Hamilton may be more relaxed, mentally stronger and hungrier than ever, a driver can only do so much if his car is not as quick as the rest. McLaren have recognised that theirs is not yet fast enough to challenge for race wins and the big question is how soon they can turn it around with testing banned once the season starts. Even if he is off the pace in Australia next week, all is not lost however. "McLaren has started 648 grands prix. We have won 162 of them and have recorded 431 podium finishes. We are proud of our record and have faith in our engineers' ability to work hard to get [the] MP4-24 [car] into a position to add to that record," the team principal Martin Whitmarsh said last week.
"Many times in Formula One history have successful teams started off with a car that was not working as well as they had hoped it would, and many times have those successful teams engineered their way back to the front of the grid in impressively short order." Former champions have little doubt that, assuming McLaren get their act together, Hamilton can do it again. The mere fact of winning the title comes as a liberation, allowing a driver to move up to another level of confidence and maturity. "I think he has less pressure," the former champion Alonso said.
"You win the championship, you will be Formula One world champion forever. Now you can enjoy more the racing, you can enjoy the races and make a mistake in one race and know that the championship is very long and there are still many races to recover." Alonso cautioned however that it is easier to win back-to-back championships when the regulations are stable because a team can carry through its advantage. Hamilton will not have that, with significant changes introduced since he won the title.
He will also find, as champion, everyone will want a piece of his time and it will take a particular focus to keep his mind on the job. The sport can offer many examples of drivers whose first title was followed by a dip, for whatever reason. Raikkonen is the most recent example. * Reuters