Twelve months on from the most publicly embarrassing and even humiliating episode of his fledgling F1 career, Lewis Hamilton has revealed that he is approaching the forthcoming world championship campaign 'in the happiest place I've ever been' and adamant that he will never again fall prey to the kind of ignominy that blighted the start of his 2009 challenge.

Hamilton was ostracised from the F1 fraternity in the wake of the infamous Melbourne lies scandal last March, after he was caught out deliberately lying to race stewards in the wake of the Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park, in a bid to earn Toyota rival Jarno Trulli a penalty and thereby inherit the Italian's third place - by fair means or foul.

Forced into a grovelling apology in the full glare of the media spotlight a week later in Malaysia he might have been, but still the Briton refused to accept the blame, rather shifting it onto his team manager Dave Ryan by insisting that he himself had also been 'misled' - speciously seeming to argue that he had had no alternative but to do meekly as he was told, however immoral and dishonest that instruction might have been.

Ryan was a convenient scapegoat, and parted company with McLaren-Mercedes shortly afterwards, in so doing bringing to a sorry and arguably unjustified end a long and successful career in the top flight that had made the New Zealander one of the most widely-respected figures in the sport.

For some time after the unsavoury incident Hamilton cast a forlorn and lonely figure in the paddock as he recoiled into his protective shell, clearly uncomfortable in the public eye - and he subsequently admitted that the spectacular fall-out from it had driven him to reconsider his place in F1. No longer Britain's golden boy off the back of his coronation as the top flight's youngest-ever world champion, with just a few words, the 25-year-old's reputation had been sullied, some suggested irreversibly.

Happily for him, whilst the lie will in all probability never be forgotten, it has since been forgiven, and the McLaren-Mercedes star enters F1 2010 and the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir next weekend considered as one of the hot title favourites. Humility has made him stronger, and redemption, it seems, might yet be just around the corner.

"There was a lot to take on-board after what had gone on," he is quoted as having said by the Daily Telegraph. "I care about how people perceive me. It was a feeling of 'shoot, maybe I shouldn't be in the sport' rather than not in my team. This is my dream team and I am fortunate to have been here from the beginning [of his career]. I never had a desire to drive for anyone else, so it was not a desire to leave the team, just to stop racing. For a split-second it was 'this is too much to take - how do I recover from this?'

"There was support from my family, though, from my team, fans, amazing letters and I thought 'you know what, I made a mistake but I am being given a second chance by all these people and support'. I never for a second didn't want to do it - I love racing. I just didn't know how to...sometimes it is hard to face the music, hard to face people when you know that as soon as you turn your back they are talking about you.

"For a long period of time, for months, I would walk into a room and I just didn't feel positive; it was negative energy and I don't like that - but slowly I began to realise that it was not all negative energy, and [that] I had a lot of support and respect from people. It made me stronger. It was a real strong experience.

"I don't want to be in that position again. It's like when you put your hand out to a certain dog and it bites you, you won't do the same again. It's similar. I have been bitten once and I don't want to get bitten again. I don't ever want to be in that position again, and I don't feel I ever will be. I can't say what will happen in the future but I have always said I love the sport, I love winning and winning in the right way. Integrity is very important to me."

Another factor that compounded Hamilton's woes in early 2009, of course, was the distinct lack of competitiveness of McLaren's aerodynamically-poor MP4-24 contender - a car so far off the leading pace to begin with that it offered the Stevenage-born ace not so much as a shred of hope of successfully defending his hard-fought world championship trophy.

For a driver used to racing up at the sharp end of proceedings throughout his career, being forced to scrabble hopelessly around at the wrong end of the order was yet another blow - but just as the man himself is palpably far more comfortable and relaxed now twelve months on, so too the MP4-24's successor the MP4-25 looks to be an infinitely more potent proposition.

"I'm in the happiest place I've ever been, and when you are happy you win races," he affirmed. "I love this team. If they let me, and my heart could stand it, I would race for them into my sixties!"

One man that the eleven-time grand prix-winner will need to overcome if he is to reclaim the laurels this season is returning F1 legend Michael Schumacher, admittedly no spring chicken at the comparatively grand old age of 41 - but equally, an adversary who should never, ever, ever be underestimated. The German too has a chequered past dogged by controversy and accusations of cheating - but Hamilton contends that all people should focus on is the present.

"Everyone has their own opinions of his past," he reflected, "but I think everyone deserves a second chance. You can't pre-empt what he's trying to do, but I am sure he has grown. He's grown in age and I am sure he will do his best to correct things he did in the past or things he did not get to do in the past. I feel he will do a good job, and it is fantastic that Michael is back - he adds to the sport, for sure."


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