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Hamilton has stayed wild and free on his long, gruelling drive

Lucky seven: Lewis Hamilton overcome with emotion after sealing his last world title in Turkey in 2020 (Clive Mason)
Lucky seven: Lewis Hamilton overcome with emotion after sealing his last world title in Turkey in 2020 (Clive Mason)

Lewis Hamilton, who rose from modest circumstances to win a record-equalling seven Formula One driver's titles, is hedging his bets as he plans to continue his career into his 40s.

On Thursday, it was announced that after chasing an elusive eighth title with Mercedes this coming season, Hamilton would be leaving the team to join Ferrari in 2025.

"The time is right for me to take this step and I'm excited to be taking on a new challenge," said Hamilton who has been with Mercedes since 2013.

Hamilton's grip on a string of Formula One records has inspired a debate over where he ranks among the greatest Formula One drivers.

His records include the longest time between a first and last world titles, 2008 and 2020. He also has most victories, 103, but the last of those was in December 2021 in Saudi Arabia.

Since losing the title to Max Verstappen in a highly contentious last race of the 2021 season, Hamilton and Mercedes have dropped further and further behind Red Bull.

While Hamilton finished third in last season's driver standings, winner Verstappen accumulated more than twice as many points.

Ferrari were less consistent but did break Red Bull's monopoly of the top step of the podium when Carlos Sainz, the man Hamilton is likely to replace, won in Singapore.

Last season, as he struggled to keep up, Hamilton talked of retiring but changed his mind and signed for two more years with Mercedes.

- 'Never say never' -

Shortly before his 39th birthday in January he explained his change of mind to the BBC.

"What you've got to learn is you should never say never," he said.

"I definitely didn't think I'd be continuing. I've been doing it 16 years. It's gruelling. It has been a long drive."

Hamilton's parents separated in his youth and he grew up on a housing estate.

His father Anthony held down three jobs to fund his son's embryonic racing career in karting.

It was clear from an early age that Hamilton had a gift for speed and the gutsy natural instincts of a racer.

In 1995, aged 10, he met McLaren's then-boss Ron Dennis.

He asked for an autograph and told him: "One day I want to race for you".

Dennis replied: "Phone me in nine years and I'll sort you a deal."

In 2007, Hamilton duly made good his promise and made his F1 debut for Dennis at McLaren.

Bold, determined and original, he almost won the title in his first record-breaking season as he reeled off nine successive podiums from his debut in Melbourne.

On and off the track, he was fast, mercurial and occasionally tempestuous and the combination led to a fierce rivalry with McLaren team-mate and two-time champion Fernando Alonso.

Hamilton narrowly missed the 2007 title, but in 2008 grabbed fifth place on the final corner in Brazil to edge Felipe Massa by one point and, at 23, become the youngest champion, a record since beaten by Sebastian Vettel.

Foreshadowing his later exasperation when Verstappen became the dominant driver, Hamilton showed frustration as McLaren failed to deliver the speed to beat Vettel and Red Bull, who reeled off four straight title triumphs from 2010 to 2013, by which time Hamilton had departed for Mercedes.

Escaping the management regime of Dennis and his father, Hamilton found freedom at Mercedes alongside team-mate Nico Rosberg, his teenage karting friend and rival.

Hamilton began to express himself with a headline-grabbing trans-Atlantic lifestyle, mixing with musicians and 'fashionistas'.

As the only black driver on the grid, he gave his sport a welcome injection of freshness and diversity and repeated as champion in 2014 and 2015.

"There's a lot of glitz and glamour and lots of positives but it's by no means easy to stay at your best, to stay committed, to keep up the training, to continue to deliver," he told the BBC.

His former team-mate Jenson Button said Hamilton had pure speed.

"For me, over one lap, I don't think there is anyone as quick as Lewis and I don't think there ever has been," Button said.

- ' I can only lose' -

Yet, Hamilton, said in January, all the records and victories had created a fear of damaging his legacy.

"I'm in a place in my life where there's no way I can win. If I win a race, it's: ‘Oh, he's a seven-time world champion, you got 103 wins'.

"I can only lose at this point in life. So, for sure there was a period of time when I was questioning whether I wanted to go through that."

As his sport's most high profile figure, Hamilton has expressed views on social issues more frequently.

He has "Still I rise," a quote from American writer, poet and black activist Maya Angelou, tattooed across his shoulders.

He began voicing his concerns for the environment and in 2019 used Instagram to declare the planet was "a messed-up place".

His comments, including revelations about his vegan lifestyle, led to the man who frequently used private jets and competes in a sport hardly known for its green credentials being accused of hypocrisy.

"I'm only human," he retorted. "Like everyone, we have up and down days. That's what I've been really trying to convey."

Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Hamilton pressed for greater diversity in the paddock and vocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hamilton's belief in self-expression and freedom has shaped his advice for young drivers.

"You need to let it run wild and free and discover yourself. It is all about discovery. And only you can do it."

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