Recently-deposed F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has revealed that he is pushing his McLaren-Mercedes team 'harder than ever' as together they bid to make up for a 'rollercoaster' 2009 campaign that veered from the downright disastrous to second half dominance - and strengthened him in adversity along the way.

Hamilton's season this year - his third in the top flight - has been very much one of two distinct halves, and the word 'character-building' scarcely does it justice. Arriving Down Under in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix curtain-raiser as the defending title-winner but with a car some 2.5 seconds shy of the leading pace, the 24-year-old was instantly on the back foot.

Somehow he produced a third-place finish from virtually the back of the grid at Albert Park, but he was subsequently stripped of the result after he and respected long-time McLaren team manager Dave Ryan were found to have lied to race stewards following the race, ostensibly in an effort to get Jarno Trulli disqualified and inherit the Toyota star's position.

There then followed a grovelling public apology less than a week later in Malaysia for what he contended had been the worst experience of his life, accompanied by plenty of soul-searching that Hamilton admitted had almost led to him walking away from the sport altogether - "Looking back on it, for sure, you wish you'd done it a little bit different," he says now, "but it's water under the bridge...It was a huge lesson learned."

A strong run to fourth in Bahrain sadly proved to be a false dawn, and the Briton had to suffer the painful ignominy of qualifying on the back row of the grid and finishing an abject 16th in front of his adoring home supporters in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a race he had thoroughly dominated less than twelve months earlier.

Indeed, it was not until the German Grand Prix at the N?rburgring three weeks later - and the appearance of the heavily-updated MP4-24, to replace its aerodynamically poor and low downforce-shy predecessor - that things really began to turn around. From then on, Hamilton outscored every other driver bar one, triumphed twice, notched up three further podiums and set four pole positions.

Had it not been for his Abu Dhabi retirement last weekend, indeed - incredibly, the first mechanically-induced failure to finish of his F1 career and only his fifth failure to finish full-stop - he would likely have 'won' the second half of the campaign, but as it is the Stevenage-born ace wound up a far from unrespectable fifth in the final standings, and he is determined now to keep McLaren's end-of-season momentum going.

"It was a real rollercoaster ride," Hamilton acknowledged, speaking to Reuters, "but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though we had half a year which was not a great feeling for us as a team. I feel my relationship with every individual in my team grew and we grew better and stronger as a team, and as a driver I feel very strong.

"It's been quite a long, hard year, full of lots of great lessons, not just for me, but also for the team. We're a lot wiser and as a man I think I've learned a lot about myself. I think I've grown; I'm a lot more mature and wiser in the decisions that I take.

"As a driver, fighting from the back, [I've learned] how to work with the team and push them forward in a productive way, how to lift the team and keep them going. It's easy to do it when you're at the front all the time, but to do it when you're at the back, it's another experience.

"Every single experience you have - and they're mostly the bad experiences - is character-building. It's how you overcome it, how you bounce back from it, how you rise above it - so I don't feel I've come out of it any worse at least. I've been back at the front and had a couple of wins, which I never expected, and I'm loving the sport as much as I ever have.

"I'm pushing my team harder than they've ever been pushed, so they are all on the edge. We're all pushing each other trying to make sure we leave no stone unturned, because we want to arrive [at the 2010 season-opener in Bahrain next March] with a chance of winning the race rather than this year where we were dead last. We've obviously learned so much from this experience, and hopefully it won't happen again."

Indeed, though he is unlikely to get his hands on his new mount until February during the first scheduled pre-season group test, Hamilton is clearly champing at the bit to spend as much time both in the factory and the car as possible to avoid the same mistakes re-occurring - and determined to make sure compatriot Jenson Button's reign is a brief one. He also has the incentive - sitting tempting him at McLaren's Woking headquarters - of a McLaren F1 supercar, promised to him by former team principal and mentor Ron Dennis should he succeed in clinching three drivers' crowns.

"Whenever I walk past it, I don't even think my girlfriend gets the same look, bless her heart," quipped the eleven-time grand prix-winner. "She's definitely got a challenger there! I love that car, always loved it. I've stared at it for God knows how many years, and there is always something new to stare at.

"I'm always in touch with my engineers, asking if certain parts have been developed [on the 2010 car], have they maximised this or that, why is this, why is that? I like to know, and right now I could tell you quite a lot about my new car and why they've chosen this material, why we are going this way and not that way. I always ask a lot of questions.

"You can't change the past. In fact, what you do in your life makes you who you are - and if you learn from it, it makes you stronger. And then, as your life goes on, you achieve more as a result of building on what's gone before."


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