Lewis Hamilton: The Formula One world champion fired up by fan power

    Story highlights

    • Lewis Hamilton lines up for Australian Grand Prix as most recognized driver in Formula One
    • The Mercedes world champion has more than 2 million Facebook fans and 2.6 million on Twitter
    • Hamilton is chasing a third world title in 2015

    (CNN)As a November dawn breaks over an Irish bar in downtown New York, the early risers inside are hunkered down to watch Lewis Hamilton begin his chase for a second Formula One world title.

    It's mid-morning in Brazil and Melissa, her husband Alex and their four-year-old daughter are also glued to the TV to watch their hero in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
      On the verdant Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, three thousand miles from the desert showdown, another Hamilton fan anxiously waits for the Mercedes man to race to his fate.
      These supporters, and others around the world from Estonia to South Africa, had voiced their hopes in video messages and their supplications on social media.
      When Hamilton flicked down his visor, revved the Mercedes' engine and hit the throttle, a global surge of support roared.
      "We came out at 6am on Sunday morning to watch the race in a bar in Manhattan," New Yorker, and self confessed No.1 Hamilton fan, Christopher Thomas told CNN.
      "We met up with fans from all over; we had a guy from the UK and one guy even took a bus from Boston just to watch the race.
      "We also made videos and sent them to Lewis' website using the hashtag TeamLH."
      In Brazil, self-styled Melissa "Hamilton," who is married to Alex "Senna," also used the hashtag to communicate with her idol. She told CNN: "I support Lewis every day but during the races I am aware of everything, even practice and all the interviews.
      "At all times he knows he can count on our support, in good times or bad. I am extremely proud to be a fan of his."
      When Hamilton won in Abu Dhabi -- in easier circumstances than expected thanks to an engine problem for rival Nico Rosberg -- and sealed the 2014 championship he was quick to thank his fans in the post-race media conference.
      "I always say we win and lose together," he smiled. "The love and energy that I get from my fans... It really made me believe that I can do anything."
      Racing in a global championship has helped Hamilton gain fame across international borders. In 2015, the F1 series will visit an air-mile clocking 20 countries.
      But when the 30-year-old Briton lines up for Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, he will do so as the most famous face on the grid.
      "Lewis has over three million Facebook fans -- with a third of those coming from the UK -- and he has 2.6 million Twitter followers," explained Jon Stainer, managing director of leading sports and entertainment market research company Repucom.
      "He has a very strong following. Compared to other F1 drivers, Lewis is also right up there in most of the sport's key markets in terms of celebrity awareness.
      "In the big markets -- Brazil, China, India and the UK -- he scores in the top three. Fernando Alonso is the only other [ever-present] driver."
      Tom Roope, whose company Rumpus Room runs Hamilton's digital media, decided to tap into the racing star's global appeal in the build-up to the sizzling Abu Dhabi finale.
      "We saw that Lewis' fans were talking to one another and so we came up with the protocol #TeamLH," explains Roope.
      Rumpus Room then devised a real time app, which enabled them to record and upload video messages of support. These twin projects enabled Roope and his team to have a better understanding of the geography and demographic of Hamilton's followers.
      "His fanbase is enormously international," he said. "Around 50% of them are from the UK but then there are a lot in Asia, Brazil and the U.S. 30,000 fans uploaded videos from 50 countries.
      "There was also a surprisingly high female following, which is probably connected to [his former girlfriend popstar] Nicole Scherzinger."
      The video messages was then edited into four films, which were broadcast daily on Hamilton's social platforms over the race weekend. The final film on race day had a million views on Facebook in one day alone.
      Hamilton himself explained the concept, and the emotional response it generated within him, after the race.
      "This weekend the guy who does my website put together a collage of different clips of messages from people," he said.
      "I really didn't know what to expect. When I got it there was something happening in my heart. I can't really explain it."
      Thomas and his fiancée Julliana Sanchez, as well as Melissa and her family and the Reunion Island fan, were featured in the films.
      "It was important to us personally," Thomas said. "It's a big deal for us making a video and seeing him acknowledge his fans."
      Thomas, who is originally from Guyana in South America, has also been galvanizing global support for Hamilton through social media for the last five years.
      He explained: "The idea percolated at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2010. My brother-in-law Shaka had a huge painted banner -- it looked like something a five-year-old did -- but at the bottom it said '#LewisNation -- We Believe.'
      "We started using it and Twitter was soon blown up with #LewisNation. The initial idea was to unite crew members in North America but when I go on Twitter and Facebook I see people from India, the Philippines, the UK and Germany.
      "It's a global base and we are trying to make it bigger. Right now, we use #LewisNation to meet up at races but we've started work on a website."
      Hamilton's mass appeal is not just because he's an F1 driver and now a double world champion.
      He has something the other 17 drivers simply don't have -- a narrative to rival a bestselling novel, a blockbuster script.
      Born in Stevenage, a commuter town 30 miles north of London, he broke boundaries when he debuted in 2007 as F1's first black driver.
      He revealed on his website when his career began he "tried to ignore that fact" but has now "really started to appreciate the implications."
      Hamilton's mixed heritage -- his mother is white British and his father's family have roots in the Caribbean -- and a rags-to-riches success story have both helped him connect with a wider fanbase.
      "There's a crossover that appeals to many, many backgrounds," said Thomas. "He's diverse, but not just [in] race but in his social likings too.
      "He hangs out with top celebrities like Jay-Z and Kanye West. This hip-hop style and the fact that he spends a lot of time in the U.S. make him one of the few drivers who actually appeals to Americans."
      Roope agreed: "Lewis is a bit different. He invites a whole new set of people into F1, people who might be put off by the rich, white, middle-classness of it all."
      Hamilton has also always worn his heart on his sleeve against a backdrop of fierce racing rivalry -- usually with his teammates --- and an on-off romance with Scherzinger.
      There have been some mesmerizing moments on track, and some famous meltdowns off it.
      Perhaps most remembered was his outburst at the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix. Hamilton had been penalized by race stewards after finishing sixth and exclaimed to the media: "It's an absolute frickin' joke. Maybe it's because I'm black. That's what Ali G says."
      Many of Hamilton's fans -- though not all -- warm to these moments of human frailty as much as his derring-do on the racetrack, and draw inspiration from both.
      Melissa races go karts in Brazil and, although she credits her husband Alex for his practical support, she also takes heart from Hamilton.
      "Lewis is a fighter, he faced many prejudices and difficult days but he never gave up on his dream; he teaches us that," Melissa explained. "In addition to his talent as a wonderful driver, he has a big heart, a great willpower.
      "Many friends are astonished to see me kart racing because I dispute championships with many men, and women on the track are in the minority.
      "I win often but women suffer some kind of prejudice. I do not really care, I care to always do my best and be inspired by the best drivers."
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      Melissa has met Hamilton at many Brazilian Grands Prix. "All my meetings with Lewis are fantastic and happy. He is a charismatic and kind person. He really loves his fans."
      Thomas, like Melissa, has met Hamilton "tonnes of times" in and around grand prix weekends.
      "He seems like a down to earth guy," Thomas revealed. "He's not one of those guys who signs an autograph and shoves it back to you. He actually talks and spends time with you."
      Thomas and his fiancée Sanchez are so impressed with the British racer that they graced him with a special honor.
      "The first person we invited verbally to our wedding was Lewis," Thomas explained. "We met him in the pit lane at the U.S. Grand Prix last year, he hung out with us, took selfies and we alluded to the fact that we were getting married and said 'hey you're the first invite.'
      "We are trying to set a date around the summer break. We can't set the date on a race weekend!"
      Being a global personality offers the ability to change people's lives even in a small way but for Hamilton, the relationship he has with his fans appears to be mutualistic.
      "Lewis is genuinely indebted to his fans," said Roope. "He always sees his fans as the core of his powerbase."
      When he drives out of the garage in Australia, the world champion may be racing to end the season as No.1 but he also carries the hearts and hopes of millions.
      Does Lewis Hamilton have what it takes to transcend the track and become a global sporting superstar? Find out in Part II published on Thursday.