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Leading Off

A Champion's World



On the grid in Austin, Hamilton had his sights set on a third world title. Any halfway decent driver can luck into a Formula One championship or even two, says Niki Lauda, "because one can be an easy coincidence if you have the best car [that season]." But to rate among the very best, you have to win at least three world titles—as Lauda did, in 1975, '77 and '84. And you can't count on having the best car so many years, he says. You have to have something else—the motivation to "go quicker, to be better—to never stand still. This is where you see the difference from normal people." Heading into last weekend's U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas outside of Austin, it would have been a stretch to call Britain's Lewis Hamilton a normal person. Though, granted, the 30-year-old was sitting on a mere two championships at that time. He claimed his first in 2008, becoming the then youngest F1 champion ever, at 23 years, nine months and 26 days. He added the second last season, after winning a staggering 11 out of 19 races. This season his margins have been even bigger. Hamilton swaggered into Austin (where SI was granted exclusive behind-the-scenes photo access to the driver and his Mercedes team) with victories in nine races and podium finishes in four others, and a chance to win the championship with three races left on the 2015 schedule. Hamilton's lead in the standings was 66 points—a cushion so large he could afford to take time away from the Mercedes garage to go karting with four local kids. It should be noted: Hamilton is not dominating a bunch of F1 stiffs. The guy sitting behind him in second place is Sebastian Vettel, a four-time champion; and Nico Rosberg, in third, is Hamilton's Silver Arrows teammate and a three-race winner in '15. In fact, through most of this season when Hamilton was on the top step of the podium, Rosberg was often just a notch below. He has pushed Hamilton every step of the way, not bad for a driver Lauda would label "normal." Hamilton? Lauda calls him "the crazy one." The British icon has emerged as something of a 21st-century incarnation of James Hunt, the 1970s English F1 champion who ran with the era's glitterati. Hamilton jets to New York Fashion Week to support pals like SI swimsuit model Gigi Hadid. At the track in Austin, Hamilton hosted all manner of stars—from actor James Marsden (X-Men) to news anchor Gayle King (CBS This Morning) to comedian Trevor Noah (The Daily Show). In his changing room before the race, Hamilton listened to music he'd made himself—a mix of hip-hop, R&B and pop. (Hamilton has his own studio and reportedly has been in talks with Jay-Z's label.) "I'm lost if I don't have my music with me," he said. Staying moored was an especially tough challenge in Austin, which was pummeled by rain that washed out a practice session and pushed qualifying until the morning of the race. And even though the session was canceled halfway through, Hamilton found his way to the second spot on the grid, behind Rosberg. Then, in the first turn of the race, he nudged past his teammate and rival. The two kept up the fight all afternoon. But with nine laps left, Rosberg understeered into a hairpin while leading. Hamilton slipped through the gap and cruised the rest of the way to the checkered flag. After treating the crowd to a few donuts, Hamilton repaired to the Mercedes garage to celebrate with his teammates. All season long he had made a habit of showering them in champagne after his triumphs. Here, finally, it was their turn. Hamilton stood in the pits, a Union Jack stretched taut in his upraised arms. Then members of his crew shook up a few magnums of Mumm's and let fly a triumphant spray. All the while, Lauda, now a member of the Mercedes team brain trust, looked on with a sense of delight. What he was watching, he knew, was anything but normal.



Life in the driver's seat: On race weekend Hamilton steered a fine line between selfless (if not selfieless) interaction with fans who were up front in their admiration for the champion and meticulous preparation with his team (including executive director Toto Wolff, bottom left).



Come Sunday, Hamilton took it over the top. Starting second, he elbowed past teammate Rosberg in the first turn. After a racelong duel, a bobble by Rosberg with nine laps remaining left Hamilton on his own (top), headed for the checkered flag and a title-worthy group hug with his Mercedes crew.