PARIS, March 16 – Lewis Hamilton has come a long way in his 24 years, from a humble English housing estate to a Swiss mansion, a popstar girlfriend and an MBE from the Queen.
He is the youngest champion in Formula One history, its first black winner and a multi-millionaire who splits opinion both inside and outside the paddock.
Now Hamilton is braced for what could be his most bruising battle as he defends the title he won by just a point in 2008’s rain-drenched, knife-edge Brazilian finale.
"You can’t live in the past. I don’t say ‘I am world champion’, I say ‘I want to be world champion’," said Hamilton.
His F1 debut in 2007 in Australia saw him finish third, quickly followed by runner-up positions in Malaysia, Bahrain, Spain and Monaco.
He won his first Grand Prix in Montreal after a flawless drive and followed it up a week later at the famed Indianapolis track.
However, his lack of experience eventually saw him squander a 13-point lead in the championship to lose the 2007 title by a point to Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s accomplishments are a far cry from his roots.
The grandson of Caribbean immigrants, Hamilton’s father Anthony, who is his manager, once held down three jobs to fund his son’s racing dreams.
They are a close-knit duo; Hamilton’s parents separated when he was just two.
"I think we’ve always tried to bring Lewis up to do things right and to understand that positive consequences flow from taking an honest approach to things," said Anthony.
Before a gear was engaged or a paddock ego bruised in 2008, Hamilton had signed a five-year contract with McLaren, worth a reported 20 million dollars a year, and been subject to ugly racial insults while testing in Spain.
On the track, his path to the title was far from smooth.
He was responsible for an embarrassing pit-lane shunt in Canada, was stripped of a stunning victory at Spa in a highly-contentious decision which had the conspiracy theorists in a lather, and then penalised again for clashing with Raikkonen in Japan.
But he was also responsible for the season’s most stunning drives.
He was the rain king at Monaco and Silverstone and pulled off arguably the championship’s most daring overtaking move with a breathtaking pass beyond a bewildered Felipe Massa in Istanbul.
No wonder the knives were out with Hamilton facing down accusations of arrogance and aloofness with rivals suspicious of his driving technique and his judgement.
But there are compensations for the boy from Stevenage.
He is in a long-term relationship with Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls after previously dating Miss Grenada.
Last week, he was at Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II who told the driver she had watched the closing stages of his win in Brazil.
"The pressure’s on now. She’ll be watching as I go into the first race," he said.