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Gary Younge
Made in Stevenage

Lewis Hamilton, who currently leads the 2007 Formula One World Championship, has been driving the whole world to distraction recently. Last weekend he won the Canadian Grand Prix. Last month he came second in the Spanish. The month before he came second in Bahrain. He's 22, good-looking and charming. This is his first season. And he's already set three records.

The greatest names in motor racing are willing him to join them in racing's hall of fame. Stirling Moss said he was "the best thing to happen to formula one in my time". Jackie Stewart described him as "the best prepared first-year formula one driver that I've ever seen".

It took Jenson Button, now 27 but the youngest driver on the circuit back in 2000, until last year to win his first Grand Prix. "In a sport that's so predictable Lewis Hamilton is a real breath of fresh air," says motoring journalist David Legget of "He just seemed to come from nowhere."

More to the point, he comes from Stevenage - as do I - a new town just 30 miles north of London with a population of 80,000.

Stevenage was not built with speed in mind. The city fathers crafted Stevenage just after the war with orderly traffic flow in mind. Town planners sat at a drawing board with all the confidence of the generation that built the NHS and the welfare state, to create the most efficient road system possible. With just one traffic light for 80,000 people, the town was held together by close to two dozen roundabouts. Directions to our house from London were simple. Take the sixth roundabout off the A1 entrance and then turn right.

Such were our landmarks and sources of local pride. We had no distinctive accent, beauty spot or league football team to call our own. We were near London; we were even nearer Knebworth - the small village that held huge concerts. But we were in Stevenage. So we went with what we had. And we had quite a lot. It was a great place to grow up. The schools were good. There was a bowling alley, swimming pool and a huge manmade lake. My mother would boast of our traffic flow and cycle paths even though we never had a car and didn't always have bikes.

Now we have Lewis Hamilton. He's not the only famous person to come from the town. There have been a few footballers, including Aston Villa's Ashley Young. But when it happens it always feels like a shock. "It felt like we were the unloved child of postwar planning," says Legget, who also comes from Stevenage. "It's a quiet place not a happening place. It was never very fashionable."

Things have not yet reached the feverish pitch of 1998, when Stevenage FC drew with Newcastle United in the fourth round of the FA cup. The last time we made it this big was when we got through to the finals of It's a Knockout in the 1980s.

Hamilton started making his claim to fame long ago. At five he was on Blue Peter racing a radio-controlled car to victory. At eight he began go-karting and went on to win every championship there was. At 10 he approached the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, in a borrowed silk suit and told him he wanted to drive for him. Dennis wrote in his autograph book "try me in 9 years". They were doing business within two.

"You need patronage to make it in formula one," explains columnist Martin Jacques, who has been a fan of the sport since he was a child. "In the old days if you had enough money you could race. Back then it was aristocratic. Now it's corporate."

In Dennis, Lewis found a dedicated patron. "With the exception of some Japanese and a few black mechanics formula one is a really white sport. It really encourages me that Dennis invested in him the way he did," Jacques says. Dennis has reportedly referred to Hamilton as his My Fair Lady Experiment.

Hamilton is no Eliza Doolittle. His parents, Carmen and Anthony, separated when he was two. He lived with his mother until he was 10 and then moved in with Anthony, whose father came from Grenada, and stepmother Linda. Anthony recognised his son's extraordinary talent and threw his full support behind him.

When a journalist went to meet Hamilton at a kart track he asked someone where he could find him. "He's the only black kid here and he'll be about three laps ahead of everyone else," they said.

Hamilton was 12 at the time. When asked where he got his talent from the answer suggested divine intervention. "I don't know why I'm so quick. When I come to a corner the answer just comes. I take what the answer says and it makes me take it as quickly as possible."

In the late 1990s my brother Wayne commuted from Stevenage into London on the same train as Anthony and they would often stop and chat. "He was dapper and used to sit in first class," Wayne recalls. "I had no idea who he was so we mostly just used to make small talk."

Wayne read about him in the local paper. "After I saw them in the Comet I realised I'd been speaking to Lewis's dad. After that we would always talk about his son."

In Britain such a public father-son bond is rare and touching. The only other black man who has caught the national imagination as a father-figure is Neville Lawrence - and his child had to be murdered for that to come about.

Lewis meanwhile was tearing through the racing hierarchy - through the junior formulas, formula threes and last year the GP2, finishing first in both and qualifying for formula one this year. "You don't step into formula one and excel without being special," says Professor Ben Carrington, of the University of Texas at Austin, a leading authority on the sociology of race and sport. "Formula one is really excited. There was a fear that when Schumacher retired the sport would retire with him. Now for the first time in a long time there's a really fast racing driver that people are interested in. He's young, black, charming and good-looking."

In 1985, the year that Hamilton was born, my mum called me in tears from the school where she taught and asked me to pick her up. Some kids had carved racist insults in the desk she had to look at every day. Rebuffed by the headmaster and her union she had had enough. This was not typical of my mother, a feisty character who fought her own battles and then some. But it was emblematic of the corrosive way in which racism played out in Stevenage - petty and persistent but episodic rather than endemic. Occasionally it could be violent (I was chased off a train by men shouting "nigger" later that year). It was relentless so that you could never ignore it but not so pervasive that it would consume you.

Black people make up just 1% of Stevenage's population. If there were as many as two of us outside the home, we felt like a posse. Whatever racial confidence we had came through music, film and maybe literature.

The flipside was that stereotyping was less intense. I played the tuba in the local youth orchestra and won the local chess tournament. If anyone thought that was odd they never said.

The transition from being the only to being the first is a far bigger deal for everyone else than it is for Hamilton, since he's probably never known anything else. "There's no model out there as there would be if he was in boxing or football," says Carrington. "He's creating it week by week."

Black people in Stevenage have punched way above their weight. In 1987 Albert Campbell became the first black mayor. Ashley Young and Hamilton were in the same year at school. Right now black Stevenage represents 100% of the town's most famous sons.

Quite how Hamilton experienced Stevenage racially is unclear. Others invariably refer to his race. Sometimes explicitly. "He's got something different - he's the first black F1 driver - which opens up a whole new market for him," said Dominic Curran, a director of Karen Earl Sponsorship.

One comment on YouTube suggested his driving proficiency came from "all that practice he's had nicking cars". At other times the references are more oblique. He has been compared to Tiger Woods, Theo Walcott and Amir Khan - but rarely Nigel Mansell, James Hunt or David Beckham.

But he does not refer to it himself. He's not allowed. There's a lot of money in formula one and his media minders have told reporters that questions about race and ethnicity are out of bounds. We know he learned karate as a child so that he could fight off bullies - but we have no idea what the bullying was about. He's said you'll find Bob Marley, 50 Cent and 2Pac on his stereo, but that could be true of many white kids in Stevenage, too.

That he has emerged at such a fraught moment in the nation's racial and national identity is intriguing. "At moments like this someone like Hamilton can become the acceptable face of British multiculturalism," says Carrington. "He's from Stevenage not from Moss Side or Chapelton. He's mixed-race. He is affable and modest. He's from a stable family and is close to his dad. He represents the difference that is not too different. That's not his doing. That's just the way he's framed and the way he is and probably the way McLaren wants to keep it."

Back in Stevenage both his race and his racing are mostly treated with ambivalence. It is simply happy to claim him as the local boy who navigated the roundabouts and made it out of town and into the big time. "If he'd done the same thing in polo I'd still be watching it," says Rablah.

Formula 1 facts

Races There are 17 racesthis season

Teams There are 11 constructor teams each with two drivers: McLaren, Ferrari, BMW Sauber, Renault, Williams, Toyota, Red Bull, Super Aguri, Toro Rosso, Honda and Spyker

Money Annual team budgets range between £40m and £350m. F1 generates total earnings of over £2bn a year. Michael Schumacher, the richest driver of all, has a £1bn fortune

Sponsorship Vodafone sponsors the McLaren team which includes Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton will earn an estimated £10m this season

Safety The Head and Neck Support safety system (HANS) became compulsory in F1 from 2003 to prevent the most common cause of death during high-speed crashes. In 1994 Brazilian Ayrton Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy

British champions Britain's last champion was Damon Hill in 1996

Cars Giuseppe Farina won the first F1 in 1950 in an Alpha Romeo. From 1959 British engineering began to dominate with the Cooper and Lotus marques.
Isabelle Chevallot

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