x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lewis Hamilton has a long way to go to become Formula One legend

The McLaren driver needs to translate his success off the track to the tarmac this season if he is join to command a place in history.

Lewis Hamilton signs autographs for fans as he arrives at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. The Briton needs an improved car to win this season.
Lewis Hamilton signs autographs for fans as he arrives at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. The Briton needs an improved car to win this season.

In 2008, Sir Jackie Stewart said he believed Lewis Hamilton to have more marketing potential than Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali combined. "But," said the Scot, "he's got to win the world championship a few times."

Three years later, and on the eve of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Hamilton has won one drivers' title, is dating the American pop star Nicole Scherzinger and has followed in the footsteps of David Beckham and Andy Murray by appointing Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment as his new management team. He is well on his way to fulfilling Stewart's prophecy.

Yet while the Briton's face stares seductively from billboards across Melbourne - Tag Heuer, Hugo Boss, Vodafone - the ambitious 26-year-old with the ivory white teeth and perfectly groomed sideburns, is well aware of the most crucial ingredient to his longevity: multiple championship wins.

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Hamilton may have been in the fight for the championship when the 2010 season reached its climax in Abu Dhabi last November, but with only one win in his previous 10 races, much of that was primarily because of Red Bull Renault's self-destruction at the start of the year.

He secured second place at Yas Marina Circuit but could do little to stop Sebastian Vettel from usurping his achievement to become the youngest world champion in F1 history.

Winter testing came and went and McLaren-Mercedes continued to struggle, putting Hamilton's position as one of F1's major forces in doubt.

However, following speculation over his future, he verbally committed to them earlier this week.

He will remain acutely aware, however, that if this year's championship goes begging once again, memories of his 2008 title triumph at Interlagos will take on a sepia tinge.

"You look at Sebastien Loeb, you look at [Valentino] Rossi and Michael [Schumacher]: legendary racers from their classes and I would love to be a part of that," Hamilton said when asked about the years ahead.

"I've always wanted three world championships like Ayrton Senna; I've always wanted to emulate him. But winning a second world championship is hard enough, so I'll focus on that for now."

This afternoon, Hamilton - in his trademark Senna-like yellow helmet - goes into the first qualifying session of the new season at Albert Park hoping that the radical overhaul recently implemented by Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren-Mercedes team principal, pays dividends.

It certainly appeared to have worked yesterday as the Woking-based outfit recorded the two fastest laps of the day.

During a cold and blustery second practice session, Hamilton's teammate Jenson Button, who won here in 2009 with Brawn GP before successfully defending his crown with McLaren last year, clocked a quickest time of 1min 25.854secs, which was 0.132 faster than his stablemate and 0.147 quicker than third-fastest Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.

"I'm not reading too much into the others' performance," Hamilton said after watching regular pace-setters Red Bull finish fourth and fifth in the afternoon, despite topping the time sheets in the day's earlier session.

"We don't know what fuel loads the others are running, but our car feels like a big improvement from where we were just a few weeks ago. This is a major positive and hopefully we can pick up some points this weekend."

Purely picking up points is certainly a different goal to that which Hamilton has arrived in Australia with in previous seasons.

But, then again, in previous seasons Hamilton has flown in fighting for the top step of the podium and flown out with his public image in tatters.

In 2009, just months after his world title win, he was forced to apologise to fans for trying to deceive race stewards while trying to cheat Jarno Trulli out of third place.

Last year, on the eve of qualifying, he was reprimanded by Victoria State police for reckless driving after deliberately wheel-spinning his rented Mercedes.

This year Hamilton will likely leave the spin to his new management team, leaving him to focus instead on fulfilling his part of the deal: winning the world championship. How likely that is will become all the clearer this afternoon when he finally takes his McLaren to the track for qualifying.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae