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Rookie Hamilton now a contender
April 16, 2007 00:03 IST
Lewis Hamilton celebrated a Formula One record and transformed himself into a championship contender just three races into his Grand Prix career on Sunday.
The 22-year-old Briton was runner-up in Bahrain, adding to his second place in Malaysia last weekend and third in Australia in March, to become the first driver to finish on the podium in his first three races.
Formula One has not seen a debut like it in the 57 years of the championship, with the youngster leaving Bahrain level on 22 points at the top of the drivers' standings with double world champion and McLaren team mate Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton is technically third, since of the three leaders he alone has yet to win a race, but that first victory should surely come before long.
Asked whether he felt he now had the same chance to fight for the title as Alonso, Hamilton did not hesitate: "Absolutely, I don't see why not," he replied. "I'm in the same car and I seem to be as competitive as him."
"As long as I can keep up this consistency, I know that I'll feel a lot more comfortable and that a win is going to be possible."
McLaren chief executive Martin Whitmarsh agreed that Formula One's first black driver, whose effect on the glamour sport could be as great as that of Tiger Woods in golf, had the credentials to go all the way.
"I think at the moment there are three co-leaders so they are all championship contenders," he told reporters.
"We've worked with Lewis for 10 or 11 years and indeed we wouldn't have put him in the seat unless we thought that he was going to be a real contender this year.
"But we don't put any more pressure on him. He's dealing with it fantastically but he will want to win in Spain [in the next race on May 13]," said Whitmarsh.
"He will be winning races this year and there's no reason why he can't compete for this championship.
"But Fernando is a great and tough competitor and he is also very much a contender for the championship this year."
Hamilton started the season as apprentice to the master, with Alonso beating Ferrari's now retired Michael Schumacher and Raikkonen to the title for the past two years with Renault before joining McLaren.
Alonso showed in Malaysia, when he led Hamilton home in a one-two finish, what an outstanding competitor he is but the Spaniard had an off-day at Bahrain's desert circuit.
Hamilton was on the pace all weekend, fastest in final practice and starting on the front row for the first time alongside Ferrari's Brazilian race winner Felipe Massa while Alonso qualified only fourth.
"This weekend we definitely closed the gap towards Ferrari," said the Briton.
"To have another second place in only my third race, I couldn't ask for more. There's only one more step from here and we'll be pushing, making sure that in Barcelona we'll be just as quick," he added.
Hamilton will head to Shanghai for a team sponsor commitment on Monday but is looking forward to returning home after some nine weeks on the road.
With his face now familiar to a far wider audience and sure to be the big draw for his home Grand Prix at Silverstone in July, Hamilton can also expect far more attention.
"I just hope that I'm still able to walk in the streets," he said.
Formula One: The Complete Coverage