SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Lewis Hamilton again leads the Formula One world championship coming into the Belgian Grand Prix, only this year he isn’t a rookie and isn’t speaking or acting like one.
Apart from the Briton’s white-and-gray McLaren outfit, nothing is quite the same as it was in 2007.
One year ago, Hamilton didn’t even know whether he would be allowed to race at the Belgian Grand Prix because his team was under threat of suspension for a spying scandal.
This year, he didn’t waste any time and was one of the first out on the track for practice Friday, confident his McLaren team and car will bring the world title home later this year.
In Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s race, he finished third and fourth in cool and sometimes wet conditions, driving confidently and avoiding any mishaps.
“This year I am a fully fledged Formula One driver and I am here to win the championship,” Hamilton said. “I am going to win it, whatever that takes. Scoring points and staying out in front.”
There is nothing left of the wide-eyed innocence that marked his first year.
“Everything was new for me. It was my first time here in a Formula One car,” Hamilton said.
As a 22-year-old rookie, Hamilton had already achieved more than many thought possible by leading the world championship standings for most of the season ahead of 2006 world champion Fernando Alonso, his former teammate.
Yet a world title in his first year would have made it so much more special. And, with two races to go, it seemed inescapable.
He was poised to take the title with a race to spare in China, but he ran into a gravel trap for a mistake that would haunt him. In the last race, too, he was error-prone. In those two races he squandered a 17-point lead over Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to give away the title.
“Last year, I wasn’t focusing on the championship. I was just so happy to be here,” Hamilton said.
This year, he is again leading with four victories, holding a 70-64 edge over Ferrari’s Felipe Massa with six races to go. Raikkonen is still a threat with 57 points.
More than raw statistics, Hamilton’s attitude shows how far he has come in one season. The novelty has worn off, and he has the whole McLaren team fully behind him after last season became an increasingly bitter rivalry with Alonso, who left for Renault.
Current teammate Heikki Kovalainen is far back in the standings with 43 points.
Last year, both Alonso and Hamilton finished with 109 points, allowing Raikkonen to run away with the title when he won the concluding Brazilian Grand Prix for a total of 110. This time around, it may well be that Ferrari has the rivalry problems this year with Massa and Raikkonen close together chasing Hamilton.
When reporters push him to go back over the troubles of 2007 with Alonso, Hamilton may start talking, but stops in midsentence: “I won’t go into that.”
All energy has to be focused on the last third of the championship.
“This year we don’t have any of those stresses,” Hamilton said, referring to the spy scandal that cost McLaren $100 million in fines and all too much attention. “We are a strong team. We have a real good atmosphere. We are just 100 percent committed to winning the championship.”
And even though he missed out last year on becoming the first Formula One driver to win the title in his debut season, the 23-year-old still has a shot at becoming the youngest world champion.