London - This time he came in a Mercedes as a superstar, but 21 years ago little Lewis Hamilton, wide-eyed like he had never been before, arrived in his father’s red Vauxhall Cavalier.
He is back at Hoddesdon Kart Racing Club, Rye House - the spot on which he lived out some of the biggest moments of his early life. On the walls are pictures of their star pupil. Helmets belonging to the rivals he blew away hang around, along with indelible memories.
On Sunday, Hamilton will compete in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone - one of the most important races of his career at a crucial juncture in his world title fight against Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg - but ahead of that epic contest he pondered how it all began in a tenth-hand kart.
The boot of his father Anthony’s car was open and that kart, a Christmas present, hung out of the back. It was Saturday, January 9, 1993, two days after his eighth birthday.
“It’s very cool to be here again,” says Hamilton. “It brings a lot of memories back. I remember that helmet. It belonged to one of the kids I used to race, Chris Rogers. There was Mike Spence, Michael Conway and another guy. All four of them had triangle shapes on their helmet because they were friends. One of them was green.
“It was 21 years ago now, which sounds ridiculous. I remember my first day here, my first crash, I remember when Ayrton (Senna) died and I was here. I remember my dad standing on the corner. I remember the little pond in the middle. It was a dried-up pond and very muddy. It was in the infield and I was in it a lot of times trying to brake.
HELP FROM DAD
“My dad would find the quickest guy, Nicky Richardson, who was British champion at the time. He had John Button’s engines and they were so fast compared to everyone else’s. My dad would find where Nicky was braking and he would walk a few metres further and make me brake there, and that’s how I became a late braker.
“I went round with him with my current engine and he went into the distance. Then we bolted one of his engines on and I was able to race him, to overtake him, and that was a changing point in my cadet career.”
Two little boys, nursing Lewis’s same old dreams, walk through Rye House. It is put to Lewis that he is a trailblazer: the first black driver in Formula One, a man who set himself up as an inspiration to people of all backgrounds, all creeds and colours.
“I’m aware that when I was their age I was looking up to Formula One drivers so I know kids are going to be watching,” he says. “I don’t want just to be a driver; I would hope that I have a positive influence on the kids I saw today. Maybe they’ll want to come back and do some go-karting. Some of them were petrified; some of them were really quick.
“Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe they don’t have the money. Just that little spark could turn into a huge fire. Some of the people I raced against had more money than us. They were all quick but I somehow just beat them. I was just faster. I don’t really know what else to say.
“Many of the parents would get unhappy. Parents get so aggressive. They’re so involved because many of the dads are mechanics and it becomes a battle of the family as well. By making progress and being fast, people would sponsor the chassis, or give us decent parts. Then Martin Hines - Zip Kart - started to sponsor us. We also got fuel, maybe some tyres. Bit by bit we would get help all around and it’s really important not to forget those people. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to race because we didn’t have the money. Dad had already put everything in so we could beat those guys.”
AGGRESSIVE DRIVING REWARDED
There was, though, simplicity to karting: aggressive driving was rewarded. It is different in Formula One. “Now it’s tyre degradation, it’s brakes, it’s fuel-saving, it’s all the different modes, the switches, the pit stops, the start. It’s a lot different. I do miss the simplicity of it because it’s just you and the kart.”
We are perhaps getting to the nub of this year’s title fight, for it is Rosberg who is thinking, as much as driving, his way to the world title. That, along with some technical misfortunes to have befallen Hamilton, has given the German a 29-point lead going into the eighth round of the championship on Sunday. The two men were friends and rivals as boys: the council-house tenant son of a British Rail worker against the Monaco-ensconced child of a world champion.
Their relationship started in Parma. Hamilton sat on Rosberg’s tail all race, biding his time before overtaking him on the final lap to win. Keke Rosberg, Formula One world champion in 1982, went up to Hamilton and congratulated him. ‘That was an awesome race, well done,’ he said.
The boys became team-mates at MBM, a team backed by Mercedes-Benz and McLaren, in 2000. Hamilton won the European Championship and the World Cup in Japan. So how did he rate Rosberg?
“Nico was quick but he wasn’t as quick as Robert Kubica (the brilliant Polish driver whose Formula One career was cut short by a rallying accident). He was the best at the time.
“When we met we were talking about how cool it would be one day if we were in Formula One. At the time, it was McLaren-Mercedes. We said several times how cool it would be to be team-mates.
“I can’t remember back then if I believed it. Nico would say, ‘When I’m in Formula One’ but for me it was, ‘If I ever get to Formula One’. Because obviously Nico’s dad was a Formula One driver so there was no doubt - he knew he was going to make it. For us, we just kept at it.”
And this year? “I didn’t come into it thinking it was going to be easy. I knew from the get-go it was going to be really close. I want Nico to finish every race. But I want to finish ahead of him. Then you can’t say I’m in the lead because he’s had problems; it can only be that I’ve done a better job.”
Hamilton looks around Rye House and thinks how the place - and the sacrifices of his family, especially his father - shaped his life. What would he be doing now if he was not, by one guesstimate, the most marketable sportsman in the world?
“My stepmother Linda gave up the idea of going shopping and getting nice new purses and clothes to keep me racing. She would be in the back of this box trailer we had, next to a gas fire, sitting with my brother on her lap and with a pot of noodle soup. It was the best.
“I don’t know where I would be now if I wasn’t in Formula One. Working here? I don’t know. I could have been anywhere. I am sure I would have been lost. My dad would get me doing something else.
“Karting was a catalyst for lots of different things. My dad was doing IT at British Rail but because we needed more money it inspired him to go and find other ways of making it.
“He eventually quit that job and they wanted him back so much that he could do his hours whenever he wanted, just to keep us racing.
“He eventually started his own IT company which is quite successful, a multi-million-pound business.
“Even before karting I was racing remote-control cars. That spark made a huge change in our lives. I think about it today and I’m sure I would have been lost without it.”