TIME

The fastest man on wheels

Lewis Hamilton, the greatest race-car driver of this generation, has big plans for 2017: Recapture a Formula One title he lost under bitter circumstances. And help his sport catch fire in America
TEAM LEWIS Hamilton can’t win without his 20-person pit crew, here changing tires during the Singapore Grand Prix in September. At their fastest, Formula One pit stops take some 2 seconds; a flawed exchange can cost a driver a race.

PIERCING SCREAMS SWALLOW up Lewis Hamilton as he enters an amphitheater at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin on a warm evening in late October. Hundreds of fans have been waiting for hours, pressed against a gate, in hopes of getting something, anything, autographed by the fastest driver on the planet. They shove hats, programs, posters, even cell phones in his direction. One clever devotee places a cap on the tip of his selfie stick, like bait on a rod, and stretches it over the throng. Another name-drops Hamilton’s pet bulldog: “Sign this for Coco!” he shouts. “I love your f-cking dog! You’re my f-cking hero!” Hamilton smiles and signs the hat. Fittingly, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” blares over the loudspeakers. Here, the British-born race-car driver is as big as a pop star.

More than 400 million people around the globe watch Formula One races on TV, transfixed by the high-tech cars that resemble sleek fighter jets shooting across the track at more than 200 m.p.h. And Hamilton is the sport’s biggest name, a three-time champ with a raft of famous friends who is swarmed by fans at races from Australia to Azerbaijan, from Monaco to Malaysia.

In the U.S., however, such recognition is rare. Formula One comprises 11 teams with two drivers each, backed by brands like Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. Over some 20 races spread across eight months and five continents, the teams fight for the Constructors’ championship, while each driver vies for the individual title. America hosts just one race per

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