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Lewis Hamilton; fighting for the top

Plenty of young rising stars have been tipped for formula one stardom in the past but all too frequently their careers have foundered after they lost their foothold on the ladder leading to the sport's upper reaches.

Lewis Hamilton promises to be different and there are many formula one insiders who believe that he could do for motor racing what Tiger Woods has done for professional golf in terms of expanding the horizons which govern the sport's perception to a wider public audience.

At seventeen he has just posted his first victory in the hotly contested Formula Renault category in only his ninth car race, and by the time he graduated from the sport's kart racing nursery at the end of last season he had a sideboard groaning under the weight of the trophies he has won since he was barely out of short trousers.

Hamilton began racing karts at the age of eight in 1993 and within two years had become the youngest cadet class British national champion. He followed up that success with three further titles in 1996, including the prestigious McLaren Mercedes champions of the future award.

For an ambitious youngster with his sights firmly fixed on a formula one future, speed and natural ability are the most obvious qualities. Being in the right place - and car - at the right time and making the most of the opportunities that come your way can be more difficult to achieve.

Lewis Hamilton seems to have most of those variables pretty well under control. He is now competing in the highly competitive feeder category which propelled Kimi Raikkonen from the status of unknown kid to McLaren formula one star in just over eighteen months.

Only nine years after Lewis started kart racing the youngster from Hertfordshire is being tipped as a possible future formula one star and has been taken under the wing of McLaren's young driver program designed to nurture any obvious future grand prix talent.

"McLaren have helped me shape my future, given me a structure to work within," said Hamilton. "Where I go beyond formula Renault is more down to their guidance because they have the organization and know-how.

"I think two years in formula Renault will be the best way. This season we have to learn all the tracks and I just want to build myself up to the level of the other drivers in the championship. I'm just looking to do the best job possible and get as much experience as I can."

McLaren has also helped fund the estimated 150,000 pounds cost of Hamilton's formula Renault program as well as coaching him in those off-track promotional and PR techniques on which the team prides itself.

It is therefore no surprise that this racing teenager displays a confidence and maturity beyond his years. He explains the technicalities of his graduation from karts to single seater racing cars with an impressive lucidity.

"It's quite a challenge adapting to car racing," he said. "I've learned a lot about how the car works during pre-season testing and the few races we have done so far this season.

"I tend to try and set my car up to reproduce the feel of a kart, so I can throw it into a corner in just the same way and powerslide it, controlling the back end on the throttle."

In the longer term Hamilton would like to move into formula three in due course, probably in 2004 when he will be nineteen. But he is concerned that formula 3000, which provides the major supporting events at most European grands prix, may be something of an unproductive cul-de-sac.

"I'm worried that many formula one teams don't pay enough attention to formula 3000 and I would be better served using formula three as the springboard to a grand prix career," he added.

His progress is being monitored unobtrusively by the McLaren management. Martin Whitmarsh, their managing director, recently took a trip to a Silverstone club meeting where Hamilton had to start 28th on the grid after engine problems in practice for a 20 lap race on the national circuit

"I was impressed," said Whitmarsh. "Lewis climbed through to ninth at the finish and was very decisive when it came to overtaking his rivals. It was a good index of his talent. In four or five years he might well be in a grand prix car, although nothing is certain in this business and certainly not at this level."

Much of Hamilton's success is down to the level-headed approach of his father Anthony. "When Lewis started racing we were just a middle of the road family out to give our son a chance of racing karts," he said.

"We never had any pretensions or thought about where it was leading us. But when Lewis won his very first cadet race at the age of eight, everything developed its own momentum.

"I suppose it was inevitable that Lewis's education suffered a bit, but I took the view that, with education, you can always go back. It's never too late to learn. But if you have a chance, an opportunity, in a sport like this, you have to grasp it when it comes.

"I had to work very hard, taking a second and even a third job, to fund Lewis's racing in the early days. But we had a deal. If I worked 100 per cent to help raise the money, then he would at least work 100 per cent on his school studies. Well, 80 per cent, anyway."

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