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Hamilton continues meteoric series rise

Rookie driver wins pole for U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis as Formula One takes notice.

June 17, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — As rookie Lewis Hamilton continues to astonish Formula One, even hardened veterans of the international auto-racing series are becoming increasingly awestruck.

Frank Williams, whose Williams team has been in the sport for more than 30 years, was asked this week to name another driver -- past or present -- who reminded him of Hamilton.

"Nobody," he said.

And former F1 driver David Hobbs, now a television analyst, recently called Hamilton's performance so good it was "unnerving."

Hamilton, 22, raised eyebrows again Saturday, winning the pole position for today's U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a lap of 129.642 mph.

Moreover, the Englishman bested the 22-driver field on a blistering hot day without having seen the 2.6-mile, 13-turn track until this week.

And he won the pole by edging Fernando Alonso, the reigning world champion and his teammate at McLaren Mercedes. Alonso will start next to Hamilton on the outside of the front row; it will be only Hamilton's seventh Formula One race.

It was a repeat of a week ago, when Hamilton -- the series' first black driver -- topped qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on his first visit to that course. The next day, he easily got his first Formula One victory.

A slim man with closely cropped hair and narrow sideburns, Hamilton also has yet to finish below third this year. That has given him an eight-point lead in the championship standings over Alonso.

It's all an unprecedented feat for a rookie. But even Hamilton seemed amazed by his Indy showing. "Quite a surprise, to be honest," he said. "I didn't expect to be on pole. I thought Fernando would be quicker."

Still, "experience is everything" here and "the more I get out on the track, the faster I get," Hamilton said. "I couldn't be happier."

Ferraris will take up the second row, with Felipe Massa of Brazil qualifying third and his teammate, Finland's Kimi Raikkonen, fourth. California native Scott Speed, the only American driver in F1, struggled in qualifying and will start 20th.

Formula One observers say Hamilton is an outstanding driver because he has the necessary superlative reflexes, discipline, determination and courage to drive consistently fast. As his two consecutive poles show, he's also a fast learner.

Hamilton also maintains a positive self-criticism that constantly makes him strive to improve, they said.

And beyond his driving prowess, it's how Hamilton handles being a public figure that impresses many, who say he displays a poise that's unusually mature for his age.

"[I'm] looking hard to find fault with him and he is very nice, which is quite unusual too," Williams said, an oblique reference to the arrogance often ascribed to Formula One and its participants.

And Hamilton's demeanor hasn't changed even though the attention surrounding him has magnified with each race.

After his first practice Friday, he was surrounded by two dozen print, radio and TV reporters from several countries, a crowd that dwarfed those around the series' other drivers, including Alonso.

Hamilton, wearing a short-sleeve white shirt and red cap emblazoned with his team's logos, deftly handled the crush like a veteran.

He calmly and politely answered questions while occasionally taking a drink from a bottle of apple juice.

"Coming back tomorrow, I'll be even quicker for sure," he accurately predicted. But before anyone could conclude he was being cocky, Hamilton added: "If I come here all excited and expecting to win, then I won't."

Hamilton is repeatedly compared to golf's Tiger Woods, both for his exceptional abilities and his race, with the potential for expanding the diversity of the sport and its fans.

Woods, trying to win his third U.S. Open this weekend in Oakmont, Pa., told a British newspaper that he's "been impressed by the way [Hamilton] has handled himself off the race track. He has the potential to be a terrific role model."

After qualifying Saturday, Hamilton said "it's obviously nice to be compared to Tiger Woods." But he was cautious about his influence.

"Whether or not it can have a similar impact on the [Formula One] audience in America? I'm not sure," he said. "It will be good for the sport if it can."

Hamilton, whose father Anthony was the son of emigrants to England from the Caribbean island of Grenada, was born in 1985 and named after U.S. track and field star Carl Lewis.

"I first watched [Formula One] on TV when I was about 5," Lewis recalled, and with his father's encouragement he began racing go-karts at age 8. Hamilton quickly became so good that, at 13, he was signed to a developmental contract by McLaren Mercedes.

Hamilton dominated the minor leagues of European racing and, after Juan Pablo Montoya left McLaren Mercedes' Formula One team last year to join NASCAR, Hamilton was called up to replace him.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart, among others, has said Hamilton could break untold records in Formula One, although Michael Schumacher's record of seven series titles might be out of reach.

Regardless, "the key element in all of this is that I am not here to take part, I am here to win," Hamilton said.

"I will do whatever mentally and physically it takes to achieve that in due course," he added. "I do not plan to waste this opportunity."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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