Lewis Hamilton has a new car and a new look as his eighth season in Formula 1 kicks off, writes Tim Collings.
New season, new formula, new Mercedes car, new haircut: Lewis Hamilton cannot claim he has not prepared well for Sunday's 2014Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix, the first round of this year's all-new World Championship.
Even if he was hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, or under a long-peaked baseball cap, or both, at Thursday morning's 'Silver Arrows Kick-off' breakfast, the 2008 world champion was still conspicuous by the attention he received from a media mob assembled for coffee and an inquisition at Republica, on St Kilda Beach.
Installed as pre-race favourite for this weekend's contest by local bookies, after some hot pre-season testing times in Bahrain, Hamilton, 29, was doing his best to play down expectations, avoid thorny issues and distance himself from the hype.
"Hello everyone, it's nice to be back," he began.
Then the questions started.
Prospects for the weekend? Feelings on being favourite for this race and the Championship? Rivalry with team-mate and friend Nico Rosberg? Frustration at five years of failure since his greatest glories?
Hamilton fended them off as best he could with a smile and a shrug.
For the boy who blitzed into the public conscience of motor racing fans seven years ago, when he oozed the fearless confidence of youth as a McLaren debutant, this is a new beginning.
It may be his second year with the German manufacturer's works team, but this is the one he left McLaren to engage in -- the first race in a new 'high tech' era of turbo-charged 1.6 engines, overhauled machinery and limited fuel and tyre supplies that has levelled the playing field after four seasons of Red Bull supremacy.
And he is competing with, and against, one of his oldest mates in motor racing in 28-year-old German Rosberg. They first locked horns, or wheels, 16 years ago in European karting...
"We have raced each other since we were 13. I think our first race was in Italy and we finished first and second," recalled Hamilton. "We have raced ever since in world and European championship karting and after that in Formula Three and all the rest.
"Now, we are in Formula One and, of course, it is more intense and more competitive. But we have always managed to maintain our respect and our friendship and there are no problems in that for us."
Rosberg smiled. "Yeah, we have always managed to work it out and move forward."
"Have we? I wasn’t aware of that..." said Hamilton.
The competitive tension, if friendly, was palpable.
Asked about the pressures of being favourite, Hamilton replied unconvincingly. "I haven't noticed it. But it is always good to have positive feedback. It is a good thing to feel we can start at the top."
Winter testing, he explained, was one thing and racing quite another. "Yes, we had a good winter," he agreed. "So we are in good shape and we are going to keep our heads down and make sure there are no distractions. We are going to do our own thing and just stay on track."
Motivation, focus, preparation and ambition... The words poured forth.
He recalled his family's sacrifices to give him a career in racing. He remembered childhood life in a one-bedroom flat in Hatfield. He re-lived the journey that carried him from those days in distant England to the clamour and the glamour at Albert Park.
"We are living the dream," he said, when asked if he had felt hurt by his own disappointments since 2008. "I am living my dream.... Hurt? No. I have lived through the things that everyone lives through in their lives. I have suffered the bumps along the way.
"No, I'm not feeling hurt, but I have fallen and had to get myself up again. You just have to dust off the dirt and go again. So I think that now I am more motivated and more focussed than I have been before. I am ready. We have done everything we can think of to prepare for this."