The way this Formula One season is shaping up, Lewis Hamilton - not Fernando Alonso - could be the first McLaren world champion since Mikka Hakkinen.
Hamilton leads the drivers' championship standings with 30 points, two more than his teammate, two-time defending world champion Alonso.
No driver has won the championship in his debut season. Then again, no rookie ever had finished among the top three in each of his first four races until Hamilton did it with his third straight runner-up finish at Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix. The 22-year-old Englishman had a third-place showing at the season-opening Australian GP.
Jacques Villeneuve set the benchmark for rookie drivers in 1996. Driving for Williams, Villeneuve finished runner-up to teammate Damon Hill in the championship, setting rookie records for points (78), races won (four) and podiums reached (11) along the way.
With Hamilton already setting one of his own marks, a victory could put him on his way to setting the most important one of all. Hamilton believes he might win his first race at the Monaco GP, next on the series calendar.
"I don't see Monaco as a lottery. It's always been a very strong race for me," Hamilton said.
Hamilton won on the famous street circuit twice in the F3 series with Dallara-Mercedes in 2005 before triumphing in GP2 a year later with the same team on his way to winning the F1 feeder series crown.
Felipe Massa of Ferrari, who won in Barcelona for his second straight win, is in third place with 27 points. Massa is preoccupied with Hamilton, not Alonso.
"You cannot say that Fernando or him are the better driver, but if the situation continues like this, then maybe Lewis can even be more dangerous than Fernando, given his championship position and how he goes in the car," Massa said.
"At the moment he seems more comfortable in the car than Fernando. We need to keep an eye on that, because he can be a dangerous threat."
Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart believes Hamilton will rewrite the history books.
"I believe Lewis will create the new benchmark for a whole generation of drivers," Stewart said.
"We will see a new generation of what I call properly prepared professional racing drivers. Schumacher became that, but I am talking about fully rounded. Schumacher was not as good as he should have been, not in terms of the driving but the total package."
The comparisons between Hamilton, F1's first black driver, and Tiger Woods are inevitable and Hamilton has said he's ready to do for his sport what Woods has done for golf.
Similar to Woods, Hamilton's lineage is of mixed race, his grandfather landing in Britain from Grenada in the 1950s. His father, Anthony, encouraged his son to pursue his interest in motorsports and by the age of 8, Hamilton had won his first kart race.
By 13, McLaren boss Ron Dennis had signed him to the team's development program.
After working his way up the ranks, Hamilton got the call from Dennis last November to fill the vacant No. 2 seat alongside Alonso.
"I'm distinctly unimpressed by the majority of drivers in Formula One," Dennis said at the time.
"Lewis is well equipped to deal with the drivers who fall into that category. But having the world champion in one of our cars means that we can be less conservative and take the opportunity to give Lewis his chance."
Some wonder if Hamilton's success might unsettle Alonso and the team in its chase for its first drivers championship since 1999.
Alonso's former team manager at Renault would be surprised if Hamilton's rise wasn't creating some self-doubt in the Spaniard.
"In his career, he has always been comfortably faster than teammates, and now he's got a guy who's his equal, if not maybe a little bit quicker," Steve Nielsen said. "The few times we saw Fernando really under pressure were when his teammate beat him. That's the situation he's in now."
McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh isn't worried.
"(Fernando) is an absolute competitor. He believes he can win the world championship and he will be out to beat Lewis and everyone else," Whitmarsh said.
For now, Hamilton is trying to stay grounded, though a victory in Monaco could make that difficult.
"I've been working so many years for this, me and my family, and to be finally in this position is a dream and it really is now just getting bigger," Hamilton said.
"It is quite amazing to be leading after only my fourth Grand Prix, but it's good and I'm enjoying it and I need to keep on enjoying it and really just building on the points that I have."
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