The eyes of motor sports will be on So Paulo on Nov. 2 for the final grand prix of the 2008 Formula One season. At stake isn't just the F1 World Drivers' Championship—the crowning moment in a global sport whose annual revenues rank behind only the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Equally compelling for fans around the world is the driver likely to win it: Lewis Hamilton. If his performance measures up, the 23-year-old Briton will become the youngest champion in Formula One history. With his broad marketability and multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals, Hamilton already is drawing comparisons to sports megastars Tiger Woods and David Beckham.
Companies such as Reebok (ADSG.DE), Vodafone (VOD), and Hugo Boss (BOSG.DE) have flocked to be associated with Hamilton because of his remarkable life story. Signed by Formula One racing team McLaren when he was only 13, Hamilton worked his way up from teenage go-karts to F1 speed machines by winning at each level along the way. Clean-cut, media savvy, and the first black driver in Formula One's history, Hamilton missed winning the 2007 drivers' championship in his rookie season by just one point. Continued success in his second season—and his growing media visibility—have turned Hamilton into Formula One's poster boy as it expands into lucrative new markets such as China and India.
If Hamilton clinches victory in Brazil, his appeal looks set to leap beyond motor sports into wider popular culture. With his good looks and celebrity friends—he hangs out with hip-hop stars Diddy and Pharrell Williams and dated Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger—Hamilton already has become tabloid fodder. Sponsors are drooling to tap the "Hamilton Effect," leveraging his popularity to reach customers who don't normally follow Formula One.Transcending the Sport
"Hamilton represents the changing of the guard for Formula One," says Iain Ellwood, head of consulting at Interband in London. "He's highly attractive to any sponsor and can easily go beyond F1 into a wider market." Earlier driving champions such as Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, and Kimi Rikknen achieved fame within the sport but didn't necessarily transcend it, the way Tiger Woods has with golf.
Hamilton also could help Formula One itself. In his 2007 rookie year, average television audiences for F1 in Britain nearly doubled from 2006. Grand prix from Shanghai to Singapore sold out this year as fans sought a glimpse of their F1 idol. Hamilton might even help Formula One get a foothold in the U.S., where it is completely overshadowed by Nascar.