LONDON — After a resounding victory in China over the weekend, Lewis Hamilton is on the verge of grabbing not one but two historic firsts in the elite sport of Formula One auto racing: He's poised to become the youngest Formula One world champion ever and the first black man to win the title.
A celebrity among motor-racing enthusiasts since he burst onto the Formula One circuit last season, the 23-year-old Briton now is being mentioned in the same breath as Tiger Woods, who also achieved superstardom in a sport dominated by whites for its entire history. Hamilton already is being compared to Michael Schumacher, the German driver who won five consecutive titles for Ferrari from 1999 to 2004.
Hamilton's victory Sunday in Shanghai put him within one race of the world title. The season finale will be Nov. 2 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Hamilton's chief rival, Brazilian Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, will have a home track advantage, but the Briton needs to finish only fifth or better to capture the points title.
Formula One is obscure to most Americans, but it's followed avidly in Europe, Canada, the Middle East, Asia and South America. As many as 55 million people watch Grand Prix races, and the circuit this year featured 18 races from Australia and China to Bahrain, Hungary and Monte Carlo.
A single-seat Formula One car such as Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes must weigh at least 1,334 pounds, their 2.4-liter engines produce more than 700 horsepower at 19,000 rpm and the single-seat cars rocket around twisting, often hilly circuits at speeds of up to 225 mph.
Hamilton, who grew up a mixed-race child from a broken home, is an unlikely star in an elite, high-tech sport that's considered the most expensive in the world. Partly as an outlet from the bullying he received at school, Hamilton took up karate and go-kart racing as a boy in Stevenage, England. His father, who's of Caribbean descent, saw his son's potential on the track and worked two or three jobs at a time to support the boy's hobby. Anthony Hamilton remains one of his son's closest confidants.
Lewis Hamilton's aggressive driving has made him less popular in the close-knit world of Formula One and earned him a reprimand from Scottish great Jackie Stewart. Hamilton once passed two other drivers on the outside of a curve at Silverstone in England, and he forced former world champion Kimi Raikkonen of Finland off the track in Tokyo earlier this year.
After months of criticism of his driving, Hamilton asked his parents, stepmother and younger brother Nicolas, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has difficulty walking, to come to Shanghai for Sunday's race. Hamilton said he was counting on them to pull him through in the season's final contest.
"In Brazil, I'm fully expecting the crowd to be a kind of 12th man for Felipe, which is fine," Hamilton said after his victory Sunday. "But I know how much support I have back home, and I'll have that again from my family. Just having my dad, my mum, my brother, (stepmother) Linda all there for me, their support is far greater than 100,000 people in a stadium, so whatever happens, it's not a worry."
Brazil also was the home of the late Ayrton Senna, the Formula One champion whom Hamilton considers his hero. "If I could achieve just a small part of what he's achieved, it would be a dream for me," he said of Senna, who died in a 1994 crash. Senna also was one of the few elite drivers who didn't fit the sport's mold of white Europeans, although a couple of talented Japanese drivers have added a bit more diversity to the ranks this year.
Europe, however, remains the heart of Formula One. All the major teams are based there, and other top drivers on the circuit this season hail from Germany, Poland, Italy and Finland. Team sponsors include Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW and Renault.
While Hamilton's ascent is injecting new excitement into Formula One, some clouds loom over the sport. Hamilton's McLaren team and others spend tens of millions of dollars each year on research and development, and the FIA, the international auto federation that oversees the sport, will meet in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss ways to cut costs that it says were unsustainable even before the global financial crisis struck.
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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