It's no wonder Lewis Hamilton loves America. His pop-star girlfriend, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, is American, and he's undefeated on U.S. soil. OK, there have been only two Formula One races in this country since he went professional, but the 28-year-old Brit won both, including the reborn American leg, held in Austin this past November. More than 120,000 people turned out in Texas to watch Hamilton catch and then pass two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel on the U.S.'s first purpose-built F1 track. With hundreds of millions of fans worldwide, F1 is about to get even bigger. "I enjoy myself here," Hamilton says. "I think Austin was the beginning of something special."
Hamilton represents a new generation of F1 drivers, spending as much time working out as the engineers do tweaking the fuel injection. Modern Formula One cars produce 775 horsepower, hit zero to 60 in under three seconds, and pull six Gs in the corners. Better fitness means more control. So after his grueling nine-month, 20-country schedule, Hamilton will spend his off-season in the Rockies, exercising at altitude. He hikes, swims, lifts, and cross-country skis for three hours at a clip. "I could take winter off, but I'm always thinking about the next time I get in the car. I want to be even fitter than I was this year," he says. "I want to be more switched on."
Hamilton has always been fiercely competitive. Raised in a working-class part of England, obsessed with cars even as a toddler, he graduated to go-karts at age five when his dad bought a used one for 300 Pounds. He won his first six races. "I was blessed with the ability to understand how cars move," he explains. "You know how in 'The Matrix,' he can see the matrix? When I'm driving, I see the lines."
It took just four races as a rookie, in 2007, for Hamilton to be ranked number one, becoming, at 22, the youngest driver ever to hold F1's top spot. He missed the title that year by a single point, but it didn't stop the global press from referring to him as "the Tiger Woods of F1." In 2008, he became the youngest driver to win a championship. Last year he was the U.K.'s highest-earning (at $28 million) athlete under 30.
Hamilton knows his sport has a long way to go to compete with NASCAR here in the States, but he seems perfectly happy to spend as much time as it takes to get the word out. "How great would it be to have an F1 race and a NASCAR race in the same location on the same day?" he asks.
See also: A gallery of exclusive outtakes from Alan Clarke's photo shoot with Lewis Hamilton for the March, 2013, issue of Men's Journal.