hamilton the next big thing

Simon Austin

Simon Austin

Lewis Hamilton became Formula One world champion on Sunday, but he has been enjoying the trappings you might expect to come with that status for more than a year.

His good looks, youth and his status as the sport's first Afro-Caribbean driver had earned him a global profile, multi-million pound endorsements and a pop star girlfriend long before his triumph in Brazil.

So you might think life will not change that much for the 23-year-old now that he has fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming F1 world champion.

Wrong, according to Britain's previous world champion, Damon Hill.

"Lewis will become 10 times more well known - maybe a factor greater than 10," Hill, who won the 1996 title, said.

There probably has not been another driver who has had such a high profile before winning the world championship, and Hill believes the 23-year-old can become a global icon.

"I think there is a special quality to Lewis," he said. "He's in that higher bracket of sports people who are seen as good ambassadors for what they do. Muhammad Ali, for example, is just an absolute superstar.

"If you ever go anywhere he appears, it's just electric.

"There is no reason to believe that Lewis won't have a fame level which will take him into the homes of people who aren't necessarily interested in F1, but who are interested in his story.

"He is the first black F1 driver, let alone the first black driver to have won a major championship, and that will be of interest to a great many people."

Hill says there is a downside to such fame, though.

"He will be affected by an even greater level of intrusion into his life from the public and media," Hill said.

"The compensation is that you get paid very well, so you can afford to protect yourself, to create your own environment and keep away from the glare.

"But that isn't necessarily an enormously healthy thing."

Indeed, Hamilton cited intrusion into his private life as one of the reasons for moving from Surrey to Geneva last year, though the lower rates of tax in Switzerland were also undoubtedly a factor.

Yet he admitted he found life in his new home city a little lonely in an interview with the New York Times in July.

"I wouldn't say I have much of a life here," he said. "You can't have millions of people come over. Who do you invite?

"I can't just wake up on Sunday morning and go golfing with my dad and my uncle."

When asked if it was a lonely life, he replied, "Yeah, I would say that, for sure."

Speaking in a "kiss-and-tell" interview with the News of the World in the summer, Hamilton's ex-girlfriend Vivian Burkhardt - a former Miss Grenada - revealed that his life away from the track was "far from glamorous".

Perhaps it is little surprise that Hamilton has been looking for a house in London with his new girlfriend, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger.

Hamilton's relationship with Scherzinger and friendships with the likes of hip-hop superstars Pharrell Williams and P Diddy might suggest a glamorous showbiz lifestyle, but the Englishman's routine during the season is defined by discipline and clean living.

He lives in a luxury four-bedroom apartment on the banks of Lake Geneva, near teammate Heikki Kovalainen, fitness trainer Adam Costanzo and McLaren team doctor Aki Hintsa.

They occasionally share a meal, go jogging or play tennis and squash. Most of Hamilton's time is spent on a relentless schedule of testing, debriefs with engineers at McLaren's headquarters in Woking, Surrey, appearances for sponsors and fitness work.

The close season will allow him to spend more time with Scherzinger. They met backstage at the MTV Music Awards in Munich last November and were subsequently photographed together at the Monaco Grand Prix, Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday celebrations in London and walking hand-in-hand through the streets of Paris.

Yet until travelling to the season finale in Brazil, Scherzinger did not attend another race after Monaco - which was won by Hamilton - because he wanted to focus on his racing.

Hamilton's father, Anthony, who acts as both an agent and manager to his son, is reported to have been negotiating with Sony and Pepsi about new sponsorship deals for the new champion.

Becoming world champion will obviously improve the Hamiltons' bargaining position.

Anthony is cautious about his son having too many commercial commitments, though, and McLaren will have a big say on the deals.

The Briton has just one personal sponsor, Reebok, believed to be worth £10m over three years, and also promotes Bombardier in exchange for use of its Lear jets. He is not allowed to promote personal sponsors while on F1 duty.

As is customary, Hamilton will receive a world title bonus on top of his £7million-a-year salary.

The 23-year-old was estimated to be worth £15million in the latest Sunday Times Rich List.

A McLaren insider was adamant that becoming world champion will not change Hamilton.

"Lewis is incredibly friendly with both the senior and most junior members of the team.

"For example today he was chatting with junior members of the team about what flat-screen TV he should buy and where he should put it in his house," the source said. - BBC and additional reporting by Andrew Benson