Lewis Hamilton: The Tiger Woods of Racing?

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Zainal Abd Halim / Reuters

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain celebrates on the podium after he finished second in the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix in Sepang, Malaysia, April 8, 2007.

As with many a grown-up sporting star, the first hint of greatness came at an early age for Lewis Hamilton. As an eight-year-old at his first kart race, he charged "more like a mature driver than a novice," remembers Martin Hines, owner of the Zip Kart racing company. Scything his way through the field just outside London, Hamilton had a confident style that seemed different from normal rookies, Hines says. "There was a little spark about him."

Time has only proved Hines right. Now 22, and in his debut season in Formula One — becoming the first black driver to make it onto the grid in motor racing's blue-ribbon championship — Hamilton sits third in the drivers' standings. In the season opener in Australia last month, he steered his way into third place, the best finish by a rookie in more than a decade. Three weeks later, his McLaren car sped past — and then fended off — two frustrated Ferraris to take second place in Malaysia.

There may be 15 races to go in the seven-month Formula One campaign — Bahrain is next to play host on April 15 — but Hamilton already cuts an imposing figure in the paddock. "He's not only good — he's exceptionally good," says Damon Hill, Formula One World Champion in 1996 and now president of the British Racing Drivers' Club. Forget that Hamilton's Grand Prix career is just beginning. Hill, who jostled with Hamilton on a karting track at one point in the '90s, says: "He's had I don't know how many years of racing behind him. And he's a winner in everything he's done."

It's this success and profile that have earned a young Hamilton comparisons with other sporting greats. His color — Hamilton's grandfather came to Britain from Grenada in the '50s — and the positive influence of his father, Anthony, have drawn parallels with Tiger Woods. Hamilton acknowledges that his participation could stoke interest among ethnic groups who may not be into the sport now. "Hopefully people that can relate to [me] will see that it's possible and also try to get into the sport," he told the BBC. Moreover, his youth, good looks and wholesome image are also likely to get marketers fired up.

It was only a couple of years after his karting debut as an eight-year-old that Hamilton raced to his first British championship. And countless more karting titles followed before he made the switch to cars in 2001. En route to winning the entry-level British Formula Renault series in 2003, he "made seasoned drivers look silly," says Tony Shaw, Hamilton's then team manager at Manor Motorsport. Hamilton's raw, natural speed and canny race craft nudged him closer to the big leagues. Hamilton's "understanding of when and where to overtake and how to take advantage of a situation is very advanced," Shaw says.

At his first crack at GP2, the training ground for Formula One, Hamilton dominated the 2006 season with a series of blistering drives on his way to the title. (On one occasion, starting from the back of the grid in Hungary after stalling his engine, Hamilton snaked his way to second.) And on the evidence so far, Formula One hasn't reduced his appetite for risky maneuvers. Hamilton is "not worried about showing or doing what he's used to doing just because it's Formula One," says Hill. For many new drivers, "that's an enormous hurdle." With the retirement last year of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, there's one less rival for Hamilton to negotiate.

And Hamilton is certainly not short on confidence. When he first met Ron Dennis — now his Formula One team boss — as a 10-year-old in a borrowed suit, Hamilton promptly told him he wanted to drive for McLaren. Three years later, he joined the team's support program for promising young drivers. But, say former team managers, he's ready to listen and learn when things go wrong. Hamilton has a rare "capacity to question himself — to analyze very clearly after a race," says Frédéric Vasseur, general manager at the ART Grand Prix team behind Hamilton's GP2 championship.

As for whether he'll become the Tiger Woods of the sport, it's too early to know whether he can live up to those standards. But for now, his fans are bullish. Damon Hill was the last British driver to take the world crown. And it's Hamilton, Hill says, "who looks likely to be the next."